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Italy's Carnevale di Ivrea

Medieval rebellion becomes cause for festival…

By Gael Stirler
(January, 2009)


Pipers parade through Ivrea, Italy, wearing
red Phrygian caps to symbolize their liberty.
Carnevale Ivrea © Marco Leonardi.


The Origins of Carnevale

Cold, bleak weather and boredom is all the excuse ancient people needed to call their friends in for a few drinks. Calling it a religious festival made it possible to have even more friends over. So no matter what religions came to power in ancient Rome or Medieval Europe, the end of winter was always a season of good food, dancing, drinking, and wild partying. In Italy, this season is known as Carnevale, in New Orleans, Louisiana, it is Mardi Gras.

Carnevale means the "end of meat" and refers to the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter. Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday which is the first day of Lent. Unlike today, when the Church allows most Catholics to choose what they want to give up for Lent, during the Middle Ages everyone had to abstain from eating the flesh of animals and birds that lived on land on pain of excommunication. They also had to avoid animal products like butter and cheese. They still were allowed to eat fish, nuts, beans, and other non-flesh forms of protein, and the ill were allowed chicken broth. But even Lent had pre-Christian origins that may have been instituted simply to save the farm animals left alive at the end of winter when food supplies were low.

Battle of the Oranges 2012 from Andry Verga_Masterblack on Vimeo.

The season of Carnevale begins on 12th Night (January 6th) and extends all the way to "Fat Tuesday," but the most intense festivities happen in the two week period at the end. This year that time period extends from February 10 to February 24, 2009, however balls and revels may occur anytime in the season.

Getting Juiced in Italy

One of the most interesting Carnevale festivals in Italy is the Carnevale di Ivrea a small Medieval city 40 minutes north of Turin. This festival begins on February 6 and climaxes February 22–24, 2009, with daily orange battles. Thousands of participants stage mock battles in the city square using plump, juicy oranges as ammunition. Within a few hours, they expend truckloads of oranges until the ground is carpeted up to a foot deep in smashed fruit. The fragrance of orange juice suffuses the air and even the non-combatants are covered in juice and pulp as they watch and photograph the battles.

The Miller's Daughter.

The Mugnaia (Miller's Daughter) and her
attendants prepare to light the bonfire.
Carnevale Ivrea © Foto Lorenza

It all began in 1194 A.D. when the Duke claimed his right of "First Night" and required every bride to sleep with him on her wedding night. One miller's daughter, Violetta, rebelled against this evil practice. When he took her into his bed, she grabbed his sword and cut off his head. This lead to a three-day insurrection against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick of Swabia, a.k.a. Barbarossa (Red Beard), which resulted in the destruction of the oppressor's castle. In 1807, during the rule of Napoleon, the city of Ivrea revived the history of Violetta and that early revolution as a way of promoting the cause of Liberté in Italy. At first, they used apples and stuffed bags to symbolize the severed head of the Duke; but, things really took off for this festival when they began to use oranges about 100 years ago. This plentiful fruit ripens just in time for the festival and is brought into the market square by the tons. Crates of oranges are stacked up to form battlements and barricades. Clydesdales and Percherons pull the heavily armored carriages filled with teams of helmeted combatants depicting the Duke's henchmen. As they cross the square they are attacked by mobs of orange throwers. There are nine teams with names like "Orange Throwers of Death," "The Devil's Orange Throwers," "The Doomsday Boys," and "The Mercenaries." Anyone can join a team, but if you don't want to be a target, you must don a red hat. The traditional chapeau is a Phrygian cap (berretto frigio) which looks like a bright red stocking cap long enough to hang over the shoulder. In ancient Rome, this cap was only worn by freed slaves and thus became a symbol of Liberty.

The days leading up to the orange battles are filled with parades, masked balls, outdoor markets, beauty pageants, and charity events. The final event is a gathering in the city square where the war is declared over, the winners are named, and queen of the festival, the Miller's Daughter, sets a torch to a magnificent bonfire that harkens back to the old Yule log.

So, if you go to Italy in February, bring your armor and don't forget the Wet Wipes. Happy New Year!

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