Back during the Dark Ages, when I lived in Rome, I had been in town about a month when I experienced my first carnevale in Italy. I was hot-footing it in high-heeled boots through Piazza Navona on a cold February afternoon, on my way from my apartment to my Italian language class. Suddenly I was accosted from behind by a gang of prankster boys, dressed up in costumes and engaged in a carnevale custom–they were beating me about the shoulders with soft paddles filled with white powder. They must have thought I was a fried pastry that needed a powdered sugar drudging. And in fact, I ended up looking like one. I’d never heard of this custom and only wish I could have thrown those kids under the bus I was heading to catch. They went after their next victim after I batted them away with my purse. I wish I had a picture of that. Lo these many years later, I’ve tried to Google the origin of this little carnevale joke, but to no avail. If anybody knows, I’m all ears!
The Romans will tell you that this is the time of year when every “transgression” is allowed, every prank and joke and disguise. I also learned that carnival originated in Rome, not Venice or Rio.
Ancient Rome had its December celebration of “Saturnalia” in honor of Saturn the god of growing and harvesting. Eventually, this winter celebration was Christianized. “Carnevale” means “without meat” as the merriment leads up to Shrove Tuesday and finally Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten fast.