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Carnevale: a quick guide to Italy's best carnivals

Best places to celebrate Carnevale in Italy.

Italy marks carnival season each year with fancy dress costumes and masks, elaborate parades and food, with carnevale customs varying from region to region.

Traditionally carnival is the period of fun and festivities preceding the 40 days of fasting and prayer that Christians observe during the solemnity of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday.

Carnevale 2024 begins officially on Sunday 28 January and ends with Shrove Tuesday on 13 February.

What are the origins of Carnevale?

The origins of carnival can be traced back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia when the social order was reversed and slaves exchanged places with their masters.

Others suggest its origins date back to pagan rites and ceremonies to mark the passage from winter to spring.

Over the centuries, Carnevale festivities were adapted to fit in with the Catholic liturgical calendar, concluding on Martedì Grasso, the day before Ash Wednesday.

As a result, carnevale does not have fixed annual dates and is determined by which day Easter falls each year (31 March in 2024).

The word “Carnevale” is likely to have originated in Venice, the Italian city best associated with the festival.

The original meaning of the word is open to interpretation however many believe it is derived from the Latin expression carnem levare, literally meaning "to remove meat".

During carnevale season in Italy it is common to see children in fancy dress, festooning the streets of towns and cities with brightly-coloured confetti.

Here we take a look at some of Italy's best known destinations for celebrating Carnevale.

Venice

Risorsa immagine Depositphotos

 Risorsa immagine Depositphotos

 

Considered the Italian queen of carnival cities, Venice stages Carnevale events along its canals and across its bridges and squares, attracting hordes of crowds each year.

 

The 2024 edition of the carnival is dedicated to Marco Polo.

 

Costumed visitors can enjoy spectacular water parades, allegorical floats, masked balls and night parades, as well as the Festa delle Marie pageant whose 12 contestants vie to be crowned the "most beautiful Maria".

 

Carnevale di Venezia dates back to the 14th century, maybe earlier, and over the centuries the event was frequently forbidden under various rulers.

 

For 2024 programme details see Carnevale di Venezia official website.


Viareggio

Carnevale in Viareggio

One of Italy's best known carnivals, with a tradition dating to 1873, Carnevale is serious business in this coastal city in northern Tuscany.

Central to the carnival festivities are the Sunday parades along the seafront, featuring gigantic floats with enormous papier-mâché caricatures poking fun at politicians and celebrities.

Viareggio is also home to the Burlamacco, a masked carnival clown created in 1930 by the futurist painter Uberto Bonetti.

For details of the 2024 celebrations see Viareggio Carnevale website.


Ivrea

Carnevale in Ivrea. Photo credit: Karta-Ivrea / Shutterstock.com.

This town near Turin in the northern Piemonte region is famed for its ancient carnival celebrations, particularly the Battle of the Oranges, essentially a huge food fight.

Staged during the final days of Carnevale, the spectacle evokes the defiance of the town's inhabitants who rose up against their tyrannical overlord in the Middle Ages after he attempted to rape a local woman on her wedding night.

According to tradition she reacted by beheading him, sparking a rebellion. This struggle for freedom is commemorated in the annual battle that pits aranceri orange handlers on foot - representing the people - against aranceri in carriages - representing the tyrant.

For details about the 2024 carnival see Storico Carnevale di Ivrea website.


Mamoiada

Carnevale in Mamaioda. Photo credit: Tore65 / Shutterstock.com.

One of Italy's most curious carnival celebrations can be found in Mamoiada, in the Nuoro province of Sardinia.

Instead of the colourful carnival floats normally associated with carnevale, the festival in Mamoiada features dancing participants in distinctive costumes with menacing-looking masks.

The dance is between the Mamuthones - dressed in black sheepskins, black wooden masks and heavy cowbells - and the Issohadores - wearing white masks, white and red costumes, and carrying a lasso rope with which they "catch" spectators.

For updates on the 2024 festivities see Comune di Mamoiada website.


Acireale

Carnevale in Acireale. Photo credit: solosergio / Shutterstock.com.

The most famous carnival in Sicily, the Carnevale di Acireale dates back to the late 16th century.

 

The popular event features both giant and miniature allegorical floats made of papier-mâché and flowers, lighting up the Baroque centre of the Sicilian town.

 

The parade is known for its protagonists dressed in 17th-century style masks, that traditionally poked fun at the clergy and the aristocracy.

 

Carnival season in Acireale is full of folk music and dancing and culminates in the burning at the stake of “Re Carnevale” (King Carnival) followed by a spectacular fireworks display.

 

For details of 2024 events see Carnevale di Acireale website.


 

Fano

 

The history of the carnevale in Fano, a town in the central Marche region, dates back to 1347, making it the oldest carnival in Italy along with Venice.

 

The colourful parade, led by a local masked character called Vulon, features giant allegorical floats accompanied by musicians playing wild arambita music on makeshift instruments.

 

The carnival is much loved by children as sweets and chocolates rain down on the crowds in the place of confetti during the parades on the three Sundays before Martedi Grasso.

 

For details of 2024 carnival celebrations see Carnevale di Fano website.


Putignano

Carnevale in Putignano. Photo credit: vololibero / Shutterstock.com.

 

The town of Putignano in the southern Puglia region is known for its ancient carnival celebrations which begin officially the day after Christmas with an event in honour of S. Stefano.

 

The festivities continue with seven carnival Thursdays, starting after 17 January on the feast of S. Antonio Abate, with each event dedicated to various categories of local residents.

 

These include monsignors, priests, nuns, widows and widowers, mad people, wives and "cuckolds". The celebrations end with a carnival funeral on the night of Shrove Tuesday.

 

For details of 2024 events see Carnevale di Putignano website.

 

Cover photo: Zafer Develi / Shutterstock.com
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