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.
I’m often in Italy during carnevale these days staying at our house outside Sansepolcro…and I’m always watching my back! Nobody, but nobody, is going to get the drop on me again.
Apparently fried sweets were also a feature of imperial Rome and remain to this day a carnevale treat. These pastries are known today by various names around Italy, frappe in Rome, cenci in Tuscany, galani in Venice.
Here’s a snap of a street vendor’s cenci in Sansepolcro.
The Coop supermarket in Sansepolcro also sells carnevale treats like this package of castagnole. They are very, very sweet–and sticky.
Carnevale in Ivrea, Italy
But honestly, my victimhood at the hands of the Roman boys is nothing compared to the town tradition at carnival time in Ivrea, Italy. They hold an annual, official, town-wide food fight with oranges! Talk about a prank.
Here’s the official town poster for Carnevale 2011, which I love.
And the 2015 poster. Yes…splat!
Ivrea is a small town near Turin in the Piedmont. The story goes like this: the Battaglia delle Arance or The Battle of the Oranges first occurred in the 19th century when a group of people rained oranges down on other people below, who retaliated by hurling them back. Apparently, town authorities over the years tried to nip this in the bud but to no avail. Today Ivrea not only paints the town orange the first week of every February, but there are standarized rules. People in horse-drawn carriages battle people on foot. This is one prank I want to see one day.
I would have loved to have seen the Roman boys, who beat on a girl (me), try their carnevale style in Ivrea. I’m sure they separate the men from the boys there.
Another rule: townspeople who do not wish to become a human citrus juicer but want to watch are supposed to wear red hats. Good luck with that!
If you love a good food fight and can get away in winter, then head to Ivrea in 2018. I don’t know what they do with all that smashed fruit, but I wouldn’t order orange juice at the hotel. By the way, I dare you to leave your red hat at home!