All crazy for carnival

From Venice to Cadiz, from Mamoiada to Basel and Viareggio journey to discover one of Europe’s oldest holidays

It’s a world upside down why Carnival fascinates young and old alike. Artists of all ages have been inspired by the merriment of these days such as Schumann in “Carnival op. 9” or Saint-Saëns “Le Carnaval des animaux.” Without the Carnival the whole work of Rabelais is unthinkable. In art it is recounted from Bruegel to Picasso, from Cezanne to Miró. In ancient Rome during Saturnalia they played role reversal: slaves were temporarily free and masters pretended to be in their service. In the Middle Ages during carnival festivals they elected, for laughs, kings and queens drawn from the people. With Christianity, Carnival precedes Lent, a period of prayer, recollection and fasting; today many Carnivals have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

Hurray for Carnival
The one in Viareggio has the largest floats and caricatures in the world; in Ivrea they play the Battle of the Oranges; in Acireale marvelous allegorical floats parade; during the Carnival of Fano, founded in 1347, among floats, masks appears the giant Pupo, will be set on fire on Shrove Tuesday; the Carnival of Cento is twinned with that of Rio de Janeiro. Putignano enjoys the record of being the one that lasts the longest: it starts on December 26 and ends in February, on Shrove Tuesday. And then Cadiz, the famous and ancient Mamuthones in Mamoiada, Ronciglione, Schignano.

Venice Carnival
The Ambrosian Carnival celebrates four extra days. It was in 1094 when Doge Vitale Falier called for the first Carnival in Venice; masked men and women can act in total anonymity. The use of the mask allows ordinary people the opportunity to mock power, aristocracy, and authority. The Doge’s Ball was born (or returned) in the early 1990s; Antonia Sautter, a young costume designer, accidentally meets Terry Jones of Monty Phyton who is in the lagoon to shoot a documentary on the Crusades for the BBC. At the end of filming they decide to hold a big costume party in a palace on the Grand Canal. For 30 years the tradition has been repeated every Shrove Saturday; guests at the Doge’s Ball come from all over the world; this year the star of the evening is Federica Pellegrini.

Frau Fasnacht
The first edition of Frau Fasnacht, the Basel Carnival, dates back to 1376. On the Monday after Ash Wednesday instituted by the Catholic rite, the inhabitants of Basel, a Protestant town, gather at four o’clock in the morning. In darkness, in absolute silence, the macebearers announce the start of the festival by shouting “Morgestraich vorwärts marsch.” Suddenly hand-painted lanterns are lit with carnival themes, animals, fairy tales, grotesque faces or ironic political figures; hundreds of drummers and masked pipers parade through the streets of the city, a merriment that lasts for 72 consecutive hours; costumes, masks, lanterns, allegorical accessories are made by the wearers.

The display of 180 lanterns on Münsterplatz is the highlight of the event. The Basel Carnival devotes Tuesday to children and the “Guggenmusiken,” marching bands. On Monday and Wednesday, parades, with jesters in the lead, pass through the city streets skirting the banks of the Rhine. The Roman Carnival ends on February 21, Shrove Tuesday.

The Doge’s Ball will be held in Venice at the Scuola Grande de la Misericordia on Saturday, Feb. 18. The Ambrosian Carnival ends on Saturday, Feb. 25. The most important Protestant Carnival in Europe takes place from Feb. 27 to March 1 in Basel.