When one thinks about carnevale in Italy, the first place that comes to mind for many is Venice. However, there are many carnevale celebrations that occur throughout the country that are unique to their locales and rich in ancient traditions. For almost 40 years we have traveled throughout Italy, studying the music and dance traditions that are little known outside the country, and we would like to share a few of these carnevale celebrations. The season officially begins on or shortly after Epiphany (January 6th) and includes various types of celebrations, food, parades, costumes, etc. It reaches its peak the week before Ash Wednesday (mercoledì delle ceneri or giorno delle ceneri). In most places, the weekend, especially the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, are the days filled with music and dance.
Püst in Val di Resia (Friuli, Udine)
The Val di Resia is a small valley tucked into the northeast corner of Italy, close to the Austrian and Slovenian borders. It is a community of people of Slavic origin who arrived in the 6th century from central Europe and have maintained their unique language and customs. The primary instruments used are the cïtira (violin) and the bünkula (cello), which are tuned lower than a standard violin and played with a unique style, while the fiddlers’ feet stamp out the rhythm of the music. Each year, a “babaz” (effigy) is created, who is present at all the celebrations and is interacted with in various ways (given wine, danced with, hit on the head, etc.) Costumes of various types are worn (some people in old clothes and rags that are destined to be thrown out), though, traditionally, the single women and men wore white clothes covered in colored ribbons and intricate hats covered with flowers made of colored paper. While music and dance occurs occasionally, the big celebration begins on the
Thursday (giovedi grasso) preceding Ash Wednesday with music and dancing occurring in the local bar/osteria, community center, and in the piazza. Mulled wine (vin brûlé) is offered to everyone. On the evening of Ash Wednesday, the final celebration occurs in the piazza, where a trial of the babaz takes place, after which it is burned. The music and dancing continues until the wee hours of the night, at which time Lent (Quaresima) has officially begun and all music stops.
For more info, see: https://youtu.be/Y6s5lad2MuY.
Carnevale di Bagolino/Ponte Caffaro (Brescia, Lombardia)
Bagolino and Ponte Caffaro are small towns located on the Lago d’Idro, about halfway between Lago di Garda and Lago d’Iseo. While the origins of their carnevale traditions are not clear, they were already documented in the 16th and 17th centuries. The carnevale in Bagolino is larger and more organized, and the one in Ponte Caffaro is smaller and quieter for the locals, although there is competition between the two towns. A detailed analysis of the symbolism and practices in this carnevale would take up an entire book, but we can describe a little bit of what you would see.
There are essentially two celebrations that occur simultaneously — one with i màscher (the masked) and one with i balarì (the dancers).
I màscher are the general population, often dressed in traditional clothes of the opposite sex, with grotesque or frightening masks, and studded wooden clogs that make noise on the streets. They roam throughout the town and disguise their voices to hide their identities, teasing people, often with sexual innuendo.
I balarì on the other hand are associations of musicians and dancers with restricted membership. It is a sign of prestige to be a member of one of these associations. Their costumes are complex with the strongest feature being the hats (low felt hats similar to a bowler hat) covered in yards of ruffled silk ribbons. Onto these ribbons are sewn jewels, usually belonging to the family. Masks are all identical, white with
black covering the eye area and no expression. The musicians, who play fiddles, guitars, and basses, are costumed in traditional black clothes, often with capes and hats, but without masks. The ritual comprises 24 dances, which are strictly structured without any improvisation and are danced in two lines facing each other. On Tuesday evening, carnevale ends in the town square with the dance, Ariosa, which is only performed at that time in a large circle. For more info, see: https://youtu.be/mezquVeVueY.
Carnevale di Montemarano (Avellino, Campania)
Montemarano is a small town of about 2,800 inhabitants in the mountains of Campania, about an hour east of Naples. Carnevale officially begins on the 17th of January, the feast of Saint Anthony the Abbott, and ends the Sunday after Ash Wednesday with the death of carnevale. Starting on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, several processions of costumed dancers process in two lines through the streets for hours, dancing to the music of the tarantella montemaranese. In the front are the children, followed by the adults, while the musicians are at the end. Each group is led and controlled by caporabballi, pulcinella figures (a personage from Commedia dell’Arte) who are dancers dressed in red and white, with a tall pointed hat, carrying a cane as a symbol of authority, and throwing out confetti to the bystanders. Everyone is costumed, from the youngest to the oldest, but the theme of the costume is not important. Organized groups wear costumes based on a theme; however, everyone in the town participates even if they’re not part of an organized club. In the evening everyone gathers to dance the tarantella for hours in an unfinished building. The processions often include wagons, as part of the organized groups who may perform skits along the way and also throw out confetti and sweets. On Shrove Tuesday (martedi grasso), all the participants meet in the piazza for one final, frenetic dance, with confetti flying through the air. The second celebration is the Carnevale Morto, or the death of carnevale. This one occurs the Sunday afternoon after Ash Wednesday, when a “funeral” is held for carnevale, complete with the reading of the last will and testament in dialect, relating events that happened in the past year which are humorous and also the fact that carnevale has spent so much for the festivities resulting in bankruptcy. The effigy is then thrown out of the coffin and set on fire. One last dance goes into the night until the breaking of the Pignata, which pours out large quantities of cookies and candies. The typical musical ensemble is at least an accordion, clarinet, and tambourine, while the dancers all use castanets. For more info, see: https://youtu.be/RSo6cA59nXk.
Carnevale di Mamoiada (Nuoro, Sardegna)
Mamoiada is a small town of approximately 2,500 people in the heart of Sardegna. Here, the carnevale celebrations begin on the eve of the feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot, January 16th, when the key figures of the mamuthones and issohadores appear for the first time. The mamuthones are men dressed in animal fur covered with 30 kilos of bells and wearing disturbing black masks made of pear wood. They are escorted through town in groups of 12 by eight issohadores, dressed in white shirts and pants, red jackets, a leather and fabric strap across the body with rattles or bells, a colorful shawl around the waist, and a white mask with black hat. They dance in two lines, a dance accentuated with stomps and jumps. While the mamuthones are silent and do not interact with anyone, the issohadores joke, talk to people, and try to capture people in the crowds with the ropes they carry. Usually these are young women, who symbolize fertility, and who are released after brief interactions.
The other key character is Juvanne Martis Sero, a puppet that has a large wooden head with
a tube connected to an empty wine barrel hidden inside the body and is dressed in velvet clothes and padded with straw. He is carried around town on Shrove Tuesday by a group of relatives, men with blackened faces dressed in traditional Sardinian women’s clothes, who scream laments and sing comic, sarcastic, and mourning songs addressed to people in the streets. While going through town, they refill the empty wine barrel with wine offered by locals and drink between laments. That evening, he is brought to the main square for a surgery after which he dies, marking the end of carnevale. During the three days that begin on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the townspeople also dress in traditional dress, parade through the streets, and dance their traditional dances (Passu Torrau, A Sartiu, and Su Dillu) to the music of the organetto. At the end of these three days filled with dances and parades, traditional food is offered to everyone and carnevale is over. For more info, see: https://youtu.be/062gkoZhHCY.
There are carnevale celebrations in small towns all over Italy, each with its own unique characteristics. The roots of these celebrations often are pre-Christian, although today, they are tied into the time of celebration before Lent begins. We’ve given you a glimpse at a few of these carnevale celebrations with brief descriptions, but entire books could be written about each one. If you are planning a trip to Italy and want to experience carnevale, look for something off the beaten path. You won’t regret it.