Let yourself be amazed by the most fun and carefree celebrations ever, discover all the curiosities about Carnival in Italy.
Carnival in Italy and some curiosities concerning its origins. There are various attributions regarding the etymology of the word 'Carnival'. The most common and accredited one derives from the Latin 'carnem levare', meaning to abolish meat from the diet, popularly translated as 'carne-vale'. It stood for the last meat banquet held the day before the fasting period of Lent.
The disguise, typical of Carnival in Italy, dates back to the Palaeolithic period, when sorcerers during magic rites adorned their bodies with feathers and rattles and hid their faces with frightening-looking masks to drive away evil spirits.
The deep spirit of Carnival in Italy is that of the reversal of order, even if only for a short time. Traditions dating back to the period of the Latin Saturnalia and Dionysian cults during which the transition from winter to spring was celebrated. The theme of the turnaround has remained in the spirit. In fact, during this short period of exuberant feasts and parades, there is the freedom to indulge in excesses and oddities.
This is precisely why the month of February colours Carnival in Italy with a thousand parades of costumes and floats. It is almost impossible to list all the events that take place in the thousands of towns and villages, but we list some for each region below, purely for illustrative purposes.
Carnival in Italy: origins, customs and festivities in Rome
Carnival in Italy is here again this year, and we at Visit Italy thought we would point out the historical as well as the lesser-known destinations for celebrating and having fun with family and friends. First though, we wanted to tell you about the origins of this masked festival.
Most historians attribute the origin of Carnival in Italy to the ancient festivities of the Roman period, which took place in December and March respectively, the Saturnalia and Bacchanali.
During the Saturnalia, participants disguised themselves by mocking the subject of their masks, in particular the slaves who wore the robes of their masters. They also exchanged gifts, called strennas at the time, and made animal sacrifices to deities, especially to Saturn.
While the Bacchanalia, of Greek origin and dedicated to the god Dionysus Bacchus, were true orgiastic feasts aimed at propitiating the sowing and harvest.
Another popular celebration in Rome, which took place between the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, was the masked parades that took place on Via del Corso on the evening of Shrove Tuesday, or 'La Festa dei moccoletti'. In fact, during the last day of Carnival in Italy, all the inhabitants would go out masked with a candle in their hands, trying not to let it go out, on pain of revealing their identity by taking off their masks.
Carnival in Italy today is a Catholic and Christian festival, but in reality, as we have seen, it has very distant origins; what distinguishes it from other festivals is the masquerade and the prank, and it is often characterised by parades in which floats with playful and imaginative elements parade.
Here are the traditions of some of the most famous and characteristic carnivals in Italy.
Carnival in Italy the merriest festival of the year
Carnival in Italy is the merriest event of the year and it is not long before it arrives. All over the boot, we are preparing to welcome it properly: wearing funny disguises, participating in masked balls and parades and eating the famous lasagne.
While so far we have only talked about the origins and traditions of Carnival in Italy, we now want to introduce you to the famous Carnivals in Italy. It is impossible to make a complete list, because there are so many of them. That is why we have thought of making a list of 11 Carnival cities in Italy, without leaving out the most well-known, peculiar, ancient and famous ones. Let's discover them together.
If you are thinking of attending the famous Venice Carnival Ball, all you have to do is book your seats with us, and be sure of this fantastic experience.
Famous Carnivals in Italy
Here are the ones we think you absolutely must know among the Famous Carnivals in Italy:
11. Venice, Veneto
Among the most beautiful cities to visit for Carnival in Italy, Venice must be ranked first. Not only because it is one of the most beautiful carnivals in Italy, but above all because it is one of the most famous and well-known in the world. Typical costumes parade through the canals and evoke the atmosphere of the early 17th century through fine fabrics, period costumes and hand-painted masks, visit the Venice Carnival. A special feature of the Venetian festivities is the Flight of the Angel, which makes everyone turn their noses upwards, as athletes and celebrities glide swiftly through the air from St Mark's Bell Tower to the Doge's Palace.
10. Ivrea, Piedmont
A very special Carnival in Italy is the historic Carnival of Ivrea, known for its Battle of the Oranges and held on Shrove Tuesday.
If you love bizarre traditions, you can't miss this original event. Where every year the crowd throws oranges at the 'oppressors' on horse-drawn carts, thus re-enacting the story of rebellion from an evil tyrant by the young Violetta, later followed by all the citizens and fought, precisely, with oranges!
9. Viareggio, Tuscany
This list of Carnival in Italy cannot fail to include the Viareggio Carnival, associated with the iconic Burlamacco mask, created by the painter and graphic artist Uberto Bonetti in 1930. Its enormous allegorical floats have been the undisputed protagonists of this event for decades now, due to their size and above all their beauty, which is due to the attention to detail on the part of those who create them. In fact, there is a real school of papier-mâché workmanship here; it organises training courses for the youngest, in which Viareggio's master papier-mâché artists teach the secrets of the technique of working paper casts, thus introducing them to this fascinating world.
8. Cento, Emilia Romagna
The Carnival of Cento in Italy is another unique event. It is no coincidence that it is twinned with the most beautiful Carnival in the World, the one in Rio de Janeiro.
Its mammoth allegorical floats, over 20 metres high, are one of the main reasons, but certainly not the only one. The real uniqueness of this event, concerns the throwing, by the masqueraders travelling on the floats, of gifts and gadgets of all kinds to the crowd, such as puppets, balloons and many other surprises.
7. Ronciglione, Lazio
Considered the most beautiful carnival in Italy, the Ronciglione carnival in Lazio is an event full of events and parades, awaited all year round for the beauty and variety of the celebrations. The protagonists of the event are the 'Nasorosso', dedicated to the pleasures of the table and wine and devoted to Bacchus, and the 'Ussari', the Hungarian soldiers of the 15th century.
Carnival in Italy begins with the 'Cavalcata degli Ussari', which commemorates the defence of the Papal States by these horsemen, continues with the 'Corse dei Barberi', also called 'Corse a vuoto', because they are horse races without jockeys, and ends with the 'Nasi Rossi' parade, called 'Pilatata'.
6. Fano, Marche
Did you know that the Fano Carnival was the oldest Carnival in Italy? The earliest documents about it date back to 1347, so we can claim it as the winner of the title of oldest Carnival in Italy, as well as the most important event in the Marche region involving more than 100,000 people every year.
5. Maiori, Campania
In Campania, have you ever seen the Grand Carnival of Maiori, one of the most beautiful in Italy? A tradition deeply felt by the locals, which over the years has grown more and more into a real event.
Every year, the streets are coloured with joy, it is a riot of masks and confetti, here adults become children again. It is not just a moment of entertainment for the little ones, but an event that mixes passion and love for tradition and keeps that irresistible desire to have fun and let loose a little, and wearing a mask becomes easier.
A time when creativity and cooperation reign among the citizens who actively take part in the event, committing themselves a few months beforehand. A true hymn to joy and pure fun, but above all a unique opportunity to experience local traditions at first hand.
4. Putignano, Apulia
In our list of Carnival in Italy, the Putignano Carnival cannot be missing, which holds a special place. Here, too, a school was established to teach papier-mâché, which is known all over the world. Under the supervision of the master papier-mâché artists, they build the 'Paper Giants', which year after year with the most beautiful floats and masks ever are the centrepiece of the event. No wonder it is one of the oldest events in the world, some historians, in fact, date it back to the year 1394.
3. Montescaglioso, Basilicata
The Montescaglioso Carnival in Italy is one of the most beautiful in Basilicata, but also one of the oldest. Its typical characters include Carnevalone, his wife the Quaremma, who carries a swaddled puppet in her arms, and Carnevalicchio. Accompanying them are other minor characters who parade around wearing clothes made of paper, cardboard and pieces of cloth. In short, an event under the banner of recycling, which is born and remains poor, albeit colourful and very lively.
On Shrove Tuesday, on the other hand, there is a parade of large allegorical floats, made by master papier-mâché artists.
2. Acireale, Sicily
In Sicily, the most famous carnival in Italy is that of Acireale, and it is distinguished by its parade of scenic horse-drawn floats that almost always take up current themes and politics.
Over time, the event has been enriched with new elements such as, for example, the flowered floats. Its history goes back a long way, in fact, as early as the 1500s, there was a festival characterised by the custom of throwing rotten eggs and citrus fruits in the streets of the town.
1. Mamoiada, Sardinia
We conclude our list of carnival in Italy with a very characteristic and well-known one.
The Carnival of Mamoiada is characterised by two different figures: the Mamuthones and the Issohadores. They are the main performers and without them this event would have no meaning.
When the procession begins, the Mamuthones move in two parallel rows, while the Issohadores remain at the sides.
The Mamuthones walk slowly and stooped under the weight of the many cowbells they wear and at regular intervals ring them by striking them with their shoulder. The more agile Issohadores pick people out of the crowd and by throwing a string, they take them as prisoners, pulling them to themselves.
Along with this highly suggestive spectacle are the characteristic Sardinian dances, banquets with wine, sweets and food typical of Barbagia, the vast mountainous region that is home to the Sardinian village.
What day is carnival in Italy
The celebrations for Carnival in Italy 2024 begin in mid/late January, but come into full swing in the week from Shrove Thursday to Shrove Tuesday.
Shrove Thursday will be 08 February, Carnival in Italy Sunday will be 11 February, and Shrove Tuesday will be 13 February 2023.
What you eat at carnival in Italy: the 7 characteristic sweets
Heady trails of perfume, dusted with icing sugar, fried everywhere, there is an undeniably unique smell in the air at this time. Mix these smells together and you are reminded of the characteristic flavours of carnival in Italy, a joy for the eyes and above all for the palate.
A festival characterised not only by dressing up, but also by the preparation of typical dishes, an unbridled enjoyment of food and drink, an excuse to take a break from the usual daily routine. It is precisely on this occasion that, from North to South, Italian carnival cakes are celebrated at the table, rediscovering authentic flavours and ancient traditions at an international level.
We have selected for you the 7 characteristic carnival sweets in Italy:
7. The cicerchiata, a well-known dish and typical speciality of the regions of central Italy: Marche, Abruzzo, Molise and Umbria.
The term for this fried dessert dates back to the Middle Ages and is said to derive from cicerchia, a legume similar in shape to a chickpea or pea.
Small balls of dough made of flour, eggs, butter and sugar are fried in olive oil, drained and mixed with honey to create a firm, crispy texture.
6. Castagnole, are another characteristic dish from the Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Lazio regions.
They take their name from the shape they initially had, resembling a small and graceful chestnut, but over the years this shape has been revisited. A dessert with a dough that is soft to the touch, they taste best when served freshly fried and hot.
There are different variations of castagnole, depending on the sin one wishes to commit: filled with cream, ricotta or chocolate, or plain.
To add cheer to the dessert, alchermes, a red liqueur that is poured directly on the freshly made castagnole, is used.
5. Frappe, although several names are given to this dessert: chiacchiere, bugie, frappole, crostoli and many others.
The main regions of origin are: Latium and Campania, but as with all other sweets, they have been adopted by many others across the country over the years.
The history of frappe dates back to Roman times when women used to prepare, in large quantities, a cake called 'frictilia', made with a base of eggs and flour and fried in pork fat.
This typical carnival cake in Italy is also attributed to the Neapolitan tradition, known as chiacchiere. Legend has it that the Queen of Savoy, tired of chattering with her guests, ordered her cook to prepare a cake that would stop the chattering. The cook, then, taking his cue from that chatter, originated this delicacy, which you cannot do without, in fact, one pulls the other.
Whatever they are called, they are crumbly cakes made of flour, egg, yeast and sugar, whose shape vaguely resembles that of a bow. They can be baked in two ways: fried or, lighter, baked.
These excellent sweets can be covered with honey, chocolate or a dusting of icing sugar.
4. Graffe, one of the traditional carnival sweets in Italy, are best known and most popular in the south.
Its origin, German, can be attributed to the period of Austrian domination of our country around 700, it is since then that graffe have arrived on our tables. We find them mainly at this time of year, but also the rest of the year, thus becoming a characteristic Italian dessert in its own right. These delicious doughnuts are made of flour, sugar, melted butter and boiled potatoes, to make the cake softer, with at the end, after being fried, a nice sprinkling of the ever-present sugar all over its surface.
A light version also exists for this cake, whereby the graffe, instead of being fried, are baked in the oven at a temperature of 190°.
3. Apple fritters, also a delicious delicacy from Trentino Alto Adige, are among the typical carnival dishes in Italy.
The traditional recipe is based on apples, which are the characteristic product of the area. In fact, this is one of the European territories with the largest area dedicated to the cultivation of apples, and the ones most used for the creation of apple fritters are Renetta and Golden.
Protected by IGP denomination since 2005, the apples of this exceptional territory are cultivated, as tradition dictates, only with ancient methods.
2. The arancini di carnevale, are typical of the Marche region, in fact, the origin of this delicious dessert is to be found in the province of Ancona.
They are shaped like very tasty turnovers and are flavoured with orange, which is where they get their name.
The leavened dough is traditionally prepared with grated orange peel and sugar, then rolled up and fried in boiling oil. The surface is usually sprinkled with coloured sprinkles or icing sugar.
Again, if you want to cook them lighter, they can also be baked in the oven for about twenty minutes at 180°.
1. Zeppole di San Giuseppe, how could we not mention them among the typical carnival dishes in Italy?
This delicacy is of Neapolitan origin and there are several hypotheses about its origin. According to some, the name derives from 'sepulam' meaning snake, precisely because of the zeppola's appearance. According to others, it comes from zeppa which, in Naples, refers to the piece of wood, used by Saint Joseph, that is placed at the base of furniture to correct its size defects. Legend has it that in addition to being a carpenter carpenter, the saint carried out a second trade, that of fryer.
Traditional zeppole boast a Roman origin and were initially simple pancakes, empty and without filling, made from a mixture of flour, water, salt and a sprinkling of cinnamon or icing sugar. In contrast, the famous zeppola di San Giuseppe is richer because it is filled with custard and, to complete the work, a black cherry in syrup.
Take advantage of our offer and attend the Venice Carnival Gala Dinner, but book in time as there are not many days available to do so. Experience this and do it in costume, fun is guaranteed.
Carnival masks in Italy: history and meanings
The long tradition of carnival masks in Italy has its roots in antiquity. They were made famous by the commedia dell'arte, and still today they each represent a city or region. We present the best known ones.
Carnival masks in Italy have a long tradition and are our pride and joy. Some are of recent invention, others originated in antiquity. Most were made famous by the commedia dell'arte, where they represent universal human characters and characteristics. Each mask is particularly linked to a city, so much so that it becomes its pride and symbol.
But let us see which are the main carnival masks in Italy, starting from the North and going down to the South:
- Harlequin, Brighella and Meneghino
Harlequin and Brighella are two masks from Bergamo. Harlequin has to attend a fancy dress party at school, but he is a poor child; his mother has no money to buy fabric, so his friends decide to give him the scrap pieces of fabric from their dress as a gift. Harlequin's mother thus puts together all the pieces of cloth, creating a colourful dress, and this is how Harlequin's costume was born. In the commedia dell'arte, his character is portrayed as a lazy servant, always ready to traffic in some trick, but his dealings always end badly.
In contrast, Brighella, is the classic cunning servant, always ready to cheat his neighbour and pick a fight.
Meneghino is from Milan, his character is that of a wise man, who enjoys teasing the nobles about their vices.
- Colombina and her suitor Pantalone
Colombina, who in tradition is Harlequin's wife, was born in Venice. She is portrayed as a cunning servant, and is always in cahoots with her mistress. Pantalone, is another Venetian mask who courts her. His character represents a wealthy merchant, a little advanced in years, but who does not shy away from hitting on all the women he meets. He always carries a bag full of coins and is famous for his avarice.
- Gianduja and Captain Spaventa
Giunduja and Captain Spaventa represent the masks of Piedmont, more precisely Turin, and Liguria. The former is a good-natured commoner, a lover of good food and wine, in fact he is often depicted with a mug in his hand. Always cheerful, often distracted and always running into misadventures.
Captain Spaventa is a lovelorn, haughty swordsman who never part with his sword and prides himself on being a skilled fighter. As a mask, he is presented as boastful and conceited.
- Sandrone and Balanzone
Two other historical masks come from Emilia Romagna. The first, originally from Modena, is that of Sandrone, who represents the cunning and shrewd peasant, but of humble origins. A characteristic of this character is that, despite attempting to give himself a cultured air by using a polished vocabulary, he is incapable of speaking correct Italian, resulting in decidedly comic effects.
The mask of Balanzone, on the other hand, originated in Bologna. He represents the lawyer or doctor who dispenses advice and tries to present himself as a person of culture. His Latin, however, is macaronic and his speeches are long-winded and full of courtly words, but without any meaning.
- Stenterello and Burlamacco
Stenterello is Florence's carnival mask in Italy. Wise and ingenious, his character represents the unfortunate commoner, but always cheerful and ready to face life with optimism, even if fate is against him.
Burlamacco, on the other hand, is the mask of Viareggio, probably the one of most recent invention, supposedly dating back to the 1930s. His performance and his dress borrow a little from the other masks and was created as a homage to Shrove Tuesday and Italian tradition.
- Rugantino and Meo Patacca
Also in Lazio, specifically in Rome, two characters come from the tradition of carnival masks. The most famous and well-known is Rugantino, representing the good-natured commoner, dressed as a gendarme, a lover of good feelings and justice, but basically lazy. His counterpart is Meo Patacca, a brawler, always armed with a slingshot and a knife, he represents a bully always prone to brawling and confrontation.
- Pulcinella and Tartaglia
Pulcinella is the Neapolitan mask, probably among the oldest carnival masks in Italy. He is generally represented as a servant, listless, always looking for tricks not to work and to earn money. Nevertheless, he is naive and good-natured, no matter how hard he tries, he always gets into trouble, but fortunately and with a bit of flair he always manages to get away with it. Less well-known as a Neapolitan carnival mask, however, is Tartaglia. His character is stuttering and clumsy, representing the lawyer, truncated and humanly poor in content.
- Farinella and Beppe Nappa
Farinella and Beppe Nappa, of the carnival in Italy, are the symbols respectively of Putignano, in Apulia, and Sciacca, in Sicily. Farinella derives its name from a flour typical of the Apulian town and represents the characteristics of the local people. Beppe Nappa, on the other hand, is a listless servant, dressed in patched and very long robes, who is always caught in the buff and punished for the trouble he gets into.
Don't miss the opportunity to see how master craftsmen create carnival masks in Venice. They are waiting for you in their workshops near St Mark's Square.
Most famous carnival parties in Italy
Carnival in Italy may not be known for being the feast of sincerity, but it is certainly in some ways the feast of feasts.
Rich in tradition and history, it has its roots in the Greek Dionysia or the Roman Saturnalia, and today takes on different connotations in every country. But let's find out which are the most famous carnival festivals in Italy? Which are the most beautiful carnivals?
- Carnival in Italy: origins, traditions, typical sweets and the most famous masks. Everything you need to know about the origins of this beautiful Italian tradition.
- Carnival in Italy: origins, customs and festivities. Everything you need to know about its origins and how its traditions originated.
- Carnival in Italy the merriest festival of the year, find out how we are preparing for the most playful and carefree event we have.
- Famous carnivals in Italy. A list of 11 cities where to spend this festivity, you will not miss the most famous and popular places.
- What day is carnival in Italy, find out when the Mardi Gras of the year falls.
- What is eaten at carnival in Italy: the 7 characteristic sweets. Find out how Italy's best-known and tastiest carnival sweets are created and prepared.
- Carnival masks in Italy: history and meanings. Everything you need to know about who the characters are and how they originated and to which city and tradition they belong.
- Most famous carnival festivals in Italy, because you know in this period every joke counts.