It’s carnival time in Italy and with it comes the joyful atmosphere created by good food, crazy costumes, amazing and sometimes spooky masks, spectacular processions of floats and handfuls of flying coriandoli or confetti as they are often called.
It’s a time of celebration and irreverence when all social rules are broken and people can laugh at the authorities with no risk of punishment, because, as the saying goes, “a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale!” which translates as “during Carnival anything goes!”
The word “Carnevale”, although discussions are widespread over the original meaning, can possibly be traced to the Medieval Latin carnem levare or carnelevarium, which means to take away or remove meat. Lent – Quaresima in Italian- which begins on Ash Wednesday- Mercoledì delle ceneri– is a period of fast and prayer. So the days leading up to Lent became a time of enjoyment before the penitence, the perfect way to use up meat, eggs and butter and celebrate life with masked balls, music and festival activity.
The Carnival celebrations go back to the Middle Ages, when thanks to the masks, peasants and lords alike could mix together without being recognized. ‘Masquerading’ is still the characteristic of the Carnevale, as masks are a diverse and popular way for the wearer to gain mystery and wonder by hiding their faces from the world. Although the literal translation of maschera is ‘mask’, maschere are in fact actual representations of characters or personalities.
The traditional maschere date back to the Commedia dell’Arte translated from Italian to mean “comedy of professional artists”. La Commedia dell’Arte was a form of improvisational theater that was popular during the 16th through the 18th centuries. Traveling teams of actors would set a stage outside and provide amusement to passers-by with acrobatics, juggling, and humorous plays based on a repertoire of established characters with a rough story line called “Canovaccio”. Their performances were improvised and used stock situations such as jealousy, old age, love and adultery. Costumes, masks and props identified the characters. Females typically did not wear masks and female roles were played by women.
The characters of the commedia usually represent fixed social types, stock characters, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. Some of the main characters were:
Pantalone (‘Pantaloon’ in English) is an old, rich Venetian, grumpy, wise, prudent, and greedy, who often falls in love with women much younger than himself with predictable comic results. He wears a red shirt over red pantaloni (trousers), a black or red hat and black sleeveless coat, and has a pointed beard.
Dottor Balanzone represents the successful layer: fat, boring and ignorant. He speaks a mixture of Bolognese dialect and Latino maccheronico (broken Latin), ridiculing the sages of the Universita’ di Bologna (the oldest University in Europe). His name comes either from balanza (in Italian bilancia, ‘scale’) symbol of justice, or from balla colloquial for bugia ‘lie’.
Colombina (Columbine) is the most popular female maschera. Her name comes from colomba (dove), the name given to a young woman who is innocent and naive or is pretending to be so. Pretty, lively, furba (cunning) and chiacchierona, Colombina – chatty, Columbine- represents the typical servant who is always lying in order to protect her young mistress. She is usually engaged or married to Arlecchino.
Arlecchino (Harlequin) is certainly the most popular and best loved Italian maschera. Born in Bergamo Arlecchino is a servant who is furbo, bugiardo (liar) and simpaticissimo (funny). He wears a multicoloured patchwork costume made up of many diamond shaped pieces of fabric.
Pulcinella is Neapolitan and has got all the stereotypical traits of his home town: he is pigro (lazy), extrovert, opportunist, always hungry, and especially chiacchierone (very chatty), so much so that we use the expression “il segreto di Pulcinella” to mean a well known ‘secret’. He is dressed all in white with a very wide shirt on the top of baggy trousers and a pointed hat, representing the traditional costume of the poor peasants. The name Pulcinella, which in some cultures has been transformed into Punchinello, is the origin of the English name ‘Punch’, the famous star of the ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet show.
Venice had the reputation for having the most famous carnival in the world. Every social class was invited, and they all wore masks, representing the collective magic that was taking place. The Bauta, possibly meaning “to protect”, is considered to be the traditional Venetian Mask, for it covers the majority of the features without having to take it off to eat or drink. It is always white, and not only worn for the carnival since at the time masks were worn on a daily basis. It was not uncommon for a person of high status to wear it in public so as to not be seen.
All over Italy, there are no Carnival celebrations without some crispy fried dessert, Well, they have several names depending on the area you get them from: chiacchiere in the South of Italy and in Milan, frappe in Rome, Viterbo and Ancona, crostoli in Ferrara, Vicenza, Trentino and Friuli Venezia Giulia, bugie in Liguria and Piedmont, cenci in Tuscany, maraviglias in Sardinia and galani in Venice. Although, all these names refer to the same dish, recipes can also vary from region to region, from city to city. Ingredients are plain flour, sugar, butter, eggs, white wine, oil for frying and icing sugar.