15 febbraio 2023
by Ivana Pisciotta

At Carnival anything goes!


I like Carnival. It brings back memories of children's parties with confetti flying, practical jokes played on friends, families making traditional fried or baked sweets, and the sounds of a cheerful pranks. But the Carnival festival dates back to the mists of time; it has religious meaning as well as historical, social, and artistic, and even culinary.

During the upcoming most festive period of the year, according to Italian tradition, it is permissible to indulge in any recklessness and it is basically a must to face life with a laugh. As the saying goes, ‘At Carnival anything goes!’ so everyone should take a joke in good cheer. This is a wintertime celebration whose date changes every year based on Easter.

Here comes the most festive time of the year when, according to tradition, it is permissible to indulge in all unruliness and it is almost obligatory to face life with a laugh

However, there is one rule: it starts the day after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls on February 4th this year. Carnival is observed twice, on Fat Thursday (set for February 16) and then again on Fat Tuesday (February 21). The Fat part refers to foods rich in fat being consumed, a symbol of opulent banquets and full bellies, and therefore happiness. Carnival falls on different dates in different places; for example, in Cologne, it starts on November 11 at 11:11 am, while in Putignano, it starts on December 26, the day of Vine Offshoots. Basel is a case apart, celebrating it on the Monday after Ash Wednesday with a bizarre baptism, that is, a general blackout at 4 o'clock in the morning.

This festivity is so heartfelt and dear to local and national traditions that last January nine historic Italian Carnivals—Putignano, Fano, Avola, Acireale, Cento, Foiano, San Giovanni in Persiceto, Sciacca and Tempio Pausania—asked to be candidates for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. To support their project, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding in May of last year, stating that, despite their being very different from each other, the celebrations in these places are famous for their papier-mâché floats with the active involvement of the entire local population. In these locations, one can feel the Carnival everywhere, even in the air. It is indisputably a very ancient festivity, whose very name gets lost in the mists of time, back to the Latin carnem levare, referring to great meat-based feasts of the Middle Ages, especially on Fat Tuesdays, right before the Lent period of abstinence and fasting.

The city of Venice celebrates the oldest and greatest Carnival, the first evidence of which dates back to 1296. The one celebrated in Fano is equally famous and ancient; the first documents referring to its celebration date back to 1347. According to some historians, the origin of the Carnival goes back to ancient Rome and the religious festival of Saturnalia, in honor of the god Saturn, during which religious ceremonies of an unbridled nature were held. In those special days, the slave-master relationship was suspended, and both slaves and masters would be allowed to behave according to their own free will, as long as their identities were kept hidden.

The custom of wearing masks harks back to this ancient tradition, which eventually led to the masked characters of the Commedia dell'arte Theater, like Pulcinella, Harlequim, and Colombina, all of whom happen to be servants. Historians also provide a sociological perspective on this custom of Carnival, that is, beneath the feasting and revelry was a desire to mock the established order and an authorized overturning of everyday authority, including by raising servants to a high status for once.

The term derives from the Latin carnem levare, meaning to get rid of meat, and refers to the great meat feasts that were held in the Middle Ages, particularly on Shrove Tuesday just before the period of abstinence and fasting during Lent

Starting in the Middle Ages, Carnival became a way to gain favor with the gods. The festival  celebrations usually culminated with the mock trial, conviction, reading of the will, death, and funeral of a puppet, a symbol of authority as well as evils past. A new life cycle was thus celebrated by exorcising death, as the Carnival period coincided with the beginning of the agricultural year, and the welcoming of the harvest season with good cheer.

The habit of celebrating Carnival has lost some of its power in recent times. Children still wear masks and have parties, and even adults often dress up, but just a handful of confetti is enough to remind us that we are in that slightly crazy time of year. By the way, no one is really sure how the tradition of throwing confetti was started. Some say that they were made during the Renaissance by coating coriander seeds with sugar, dipping them in plaster and letting them dry, with the purpose of throwing them from the tops of masquerade floats and carriages onto the cheering crowd for good luck.

Italians Enrico Mangili from Milan and Ettore Fenderl from Trieste later had the idea of turning them into dots of wastepaper from the breeding of silkworms. Apparently, money was too tight to buy plaster confetti.

On the other hand, the desserts of the Carnival’s ancient culinary tradition have remained the same. They are fried pastries called chiacchiere in the North and frappe in the South, but every region of Italy has a name for them. They are known as bugie, gasse or risòle in Piedmont and Liguria, merveilles in Aosta Valley, maraviglias in Sardinia, sfrappe in Marche and sfrappole in Bologna.

They are called cioffe In Abruzzo, crostoli in Trentino, lattughe in Brescia and Mantua provinces, flakes in Emilia Romagna, handkerchiefs in Tuscany, cunchielli in Molise, gloves in Calabria, and frappe in Lazio. They are the true queens of the Carnival, whose origin may go back to the frictilia, which were sweets fried in pork fat during the Saturnalia, and which, due to their being tongue shaped, remind one of talking and joking with friends during the holidays. It is also told that Queen Margherita of Savoy, who wished to have a chat with her guests, got hungry once and asked court cook Raffaele Esposito to prepare a dessert. There was only lard, water and flour in the pantry; with these humble ingredients, history was made.

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