CARNIVAL in Italy: History, Traditions and Expressions!

Carnival is just around the corner and here in Italy we are getting ready to celebrate it as it should be! Being a very ancient and widespread festival, each Country celebrates it differently…but you should know that here, each region has its own traditions to celebrate the last day before the start of Lent – and they all do it in grand style! A few examples of this are parades, dressing-up, special foods, but also masks (and no, it’s not just about makeup ‘masks’). If you are curious to know more about the Italian traditions to celebrate Carnival, its ancient history and all the expressions of our language related to masks, all you must do is continue reading this article!

Carnival: a Very Ancient Tradition

Carnival seems like a festival of little importance, but it’s actually very ancient: it dates back to ancient Rome and more specifically, to the festivities called “the Saturnalia” – during these festivals everyone let themselves go, freed themselves from obligations and commitments, and dedicated themselves to jokes and games. The tradition of the mask was born right at that time, when everyone dressed themselves up to celebrate – this made it possible to eliminate, minimize the social differences between rich and poor. These celebrations in the name of freedom were justified by their idea that “once a year, it is permissible to go crazy” and in fact, after the holidays everything returned to normal.

The evolution of these celebrations underwent a drastic change with the arrival of Christianity, that is when the Church decided to put an end to these festivals because they were considered “wild”: from that moment on the Carnival became quieter and began to be associated with religion.

As for the etymology of the word “Carnival”, it comes from the Latin “carnem levare“, that is “to eliminate/remove meat”. Carnival day was just the last before Lent, the period of 40 days before Easter, during which you could not eat meat.

Enough about history…let’s move on to the famous Carnival masks!

The Carnival MASKS!

Masks are still a fundamental part of Carnival today. The most typical ones from Italy are Pulcinella, Pantalone, Colombina, Arlecchino, Brighella, Balanzone and Pierrot – but let’s take a closer look!

Pulcinella is perhaps one of the most famous masks, made easily recognizable by its appearance: he wears white clothes, a white hat, and a black mask with a very long nose. Originated around the Seventeenth century, Pulcinella is the mask that represents laziness and clumsiness. There are several theories concerning the etymology of this mask – because of his beak-like nose, the most plausible theory is that his name comes from “Pulcino” (lit. Chick).

Pantalone, on the other hand, is the typical Sixteenth-Century Venetian merchant: old and miserly. Like Pulcinella, he also wears a black mask with a hooked nose, while his clothes are red – he wears red tights and a red blouse, a floppy red cap, and a dark cloak.

Colombina (lit. “Little Dove”), unlike the first two masks, does not have her face covered. She is almost always depicted with a narrow corset and a wide flounced blue skirt. She is courted by Pantalone, although her beloved is…

Arlecchino! Also known as Harlequin, he’s probably the most popular mask and he plays the role of a carefree and cheerful servant. In Italian, his name is now synonymous with “multicolored” because of his costume, characterized by a diamond-shaped pattern where each diamond is a different color. He wears a white hat, and, like the other men, his face is covered with a black mask.

Brighella (from the Italian “Briga”, meaning “trouble”, “hassle”) is Arlecchino’s best friend. As his name suggests, he has a lively, insolent, and mischievous character. He is depicted with jacket and trousers that are decorated with green gallons (decorative stripes); he also has green shoes with black pompoms. The coat he wars is white and it has two green stripes, while his mask and hat are black.

Balanzone (simply known as ‘The Doctor’ in Italian) is the classic “serious”, conceited, and pretentious character: he is a Doctor of Law and is nothing more than the caricature of the pedantic man of law, a man of little ability. This mask has mostly black clothes, including the hat and the usual mask. In addition, he is often depicted with red cheeks.

The naïve and shy Pierrot is characterized by white clothes, a hat (sometimes white with black pompoms, sometimes black with white pompoms) and a black tear on the cheek, which symbolizes his impossible loves e.g., his love for Colombina, who usually leaves him for Arlecchino. Although its name sounds very French, this mask was born in Italy around the Sixteenth century – it’s often associated with the Hexagon because it has actually achieved its popularity thanks to our French neighbors.

These masks, very different from each other, come from all over Italy: Pantalone and Colombina come from Venice; Arlecchino and Brighella are originally from Bergamo; Pulcinella is from Naples; Balanzone was born in Bologna while Pierrot has uncertain origins.

So… how is Carnival celebrated around Italy?

Carnival: WHERE is it celebrated?

From North to South, Carnival is celebrated everywhere, but if you were in the Bel Paese during this period, you would have to see how Carnival is celebrated in some cities that are famous precisely for their way of celebrating this holiday.

VENICE – Venice is certainly one of those cities whose Carnival celebrations are famous all around the world. The way Carnival is celebrated in this famous city in Northern Italy is incredible: it almost feels like you’ve been catapulted into a fantasy world! Here, everything is elegant and so is its Carnival, including Balls, masks, and beautiful gowns.

One of the most famous events during the Carnival is the “Flight of the Angel“, during which the winner of the beauty contest of the previous Carnival “flies” from the San Marco bell tower to the Doge’s Palace – while obviously being attached to a rope. Among the many foods you must try, we recommend the Venetian ‘pancakes’ (known as “frìtole”)!

CENTO – The Carnival of Cento has long been considered the best Carnival in Europe, characterized by its large allegorical floats that parade around the city. During this event, candy, sweets, toys and dolls of all shapes and colors are thrown to the crowd! If you are in the Emilia-Romagna city during the carnival period, you cannot not try the fried castagnole (a confectionery made with flour, sugar, eggs, butter and yeast) in all its variations: baked, with chocolate, with cream and with ricotta …!

VIAREGGIO – The Carnival of Viareggio is famous for its parade of papier-mâché dolls accompanied by masked groups that move in procession along the main street. Parties, parades, masquerades, and other events last a whole month; moreover, tradition has it that politicians are the most ridiculous characters embodied in sculptures!

Visiting this city, you certainly cannot forget to try the Italian version of “Angel Wings”: cenci (or “chiacchiere”), that can be either fried or baked.

PUTIGNANO – The Carnival of Putignano is considered the oldest in Europe, between parades and various shows. Here too there is a beautiful parade of papier-mâché floats, real works of art…they are beautiful! A typical food, not to be missed, is the Farinella (biscuits made the traditional farinella flour, with the addition of sugar, butter, eggs, milk, cinnamon, grated lemon, and orange peel).

We have talked about the history of this festival, where it is celebrated the most and what typical dishes you can taste…well, now we just have to talk about the expressions related to Carnival and masks! Mind you, the expressions listed below are used all year round and are by no means limited to the Carnival period!

INDOSSARE UNA MASCHERA/ NASCONDERSI DIETRO UNA MASCHERA (lit. WEARING A MASK / HIDING BEHIND A MASK) – This expression indicates “doing everything to appear different from what one is, presenting a false appearance, hiding one’s thoughts and intentions”, or even “assuming an impassive expression, which shows no emotion”.

Example: Luca ci ha ingannati tutti: pensavamo fosse una brava persona, ma si stava semplicemente nascondendo dietro una maschera e alla fine ci ha tradito.

(“Luca deceived us all: we thought he was a good person, but he was simply hiding behind a mask and in the end, he betrayed us.”)

GETTARE LA MASCHERA (lit. TO THROW OFF THE MASK) – Meaning that someone stop pretending, declare their real intentions, reveal themselves for what they really are; they drop the act.

Example: La matrigna di Cenerentola sembrava buona e gentile. Ma quando suo marito è morto, ha gettato la maschera e si è mostrata come la donna crudele che era realmente!

(“Cinderella’s stepmother looked good and kind. But when her husband died, she threw off the mask/dropped the act and showed herself as the cruel woman she really was!)

TI CONOSCO, MASCHERINA! (lit. I KNOW YOU, LITTLE MASK!) – This expression is very poetic and it’s perfect specially to use with children. It is an exclamation that is usually used as a way to communicate (more or less) jokingly to someone that we have understood their true intentions, despite all their pretenses. It basically means “you can’t fool me!”

The origin of the expression comes from the past, a time when masked parties were frequent. So, with this exclamation it was announced to someone that they had been recognized despite the mask that hid their face and identity.

Example: if you catch someone doing something they know they shouldn’t do or they shouldn’t have done

Che stai mangiando?

(What are you eating?)

+Io? Niente…Sono a dieta…

(Me? Nothing…I’m on a diet…)

Ti conosco, mascherina! So che non riesci a resistere al cioccolato! E so che ce n’era un po’ in dispensa…

(You can’t fool me! I know you can’t resist chocolate! And I know there was some in the pantry…)

SEMBRARE UNA MASCHERA (lit. TO LOOK LIKE A MASK) – This expression is used to refer to a person who has used a very heavy, excessive makeup, with very bold colors or who is dressed in a particularly showy way, with bright colors that do not match very well.

How about you…how do you celebrate Carnival? Let us know if you like to dress up at Carnival and what you usually do! What is your favorite mask? Have you ever been to one of the cities mentioned before for Carnival? If we have intrigued you with the history of this tradition, perhaps you might like our article on the history of the Medici family of Florence.

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