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February: The Month of Carnival

In Italy, February is the month of Carnival. The cities celebrating the occasion fill up with masks and confetti, lights and colors that create a unique and festive atmosphere. The origins of Carnival are ancient and date back to the Roman Saturnalia, which were celebrated in honor of the new year, in addition to the Lupercalia and the Dionysian celebrations. 
However, it is highly likely that the word "carnival" derives from the Latin carnem levare, because originally the expression indicated the banquet that was held the day before the start of the meat fasting, or Lent.Carnival of Venice - Photo by Vesilvio - ShutterstockIn fact, in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the Carnival takes place between the day of Epiphany (January 6th) and Lent. From a festival characterized by an excessive enjoyment of food, drink and sensual pleasures, granted to the lower classes as a temporary transgression of social norms, over the centuries and in different geographical areas Carnival has been enhanced and rehashed with new and diverse nuances.

In Italy carnivals find their foundations in ancient traditions, and they are well-known on an international level, drawing thousands of visitors from around the world annually. It is worth doing a little tour of Italian carnivals in February to attend at least the most famous ones. Starting with the Veneto Region, the Carnival of Venice is the Carnival of all Italian Carnivals. 

Established by the Venetian oligarchy to offer the public a period of time for entertainment and festivities, its dominant feature was the masquerade, serving as a brief anulment of social class, gender or religion. Nowadays, the Carnival of Venice is a charming folk festival and a unique event for its history, atmosphere and masks. During the two weeks of Carnival in this lagoon city, you can experious numerous parades, displays and events of all kinds. Furthermore, as in the past, impressive private parties and masked balls are still held in the great Venetian palaces. In these places, which seem to have acquired little change over time, guests can immerse themselves in the same glory and tradition of Carnivals past. Among the most awe-inspiring moments of the celebration is the spectacular Flight of the Angel, a long-held tradition (the first person who performed it was a Turkish acrobat, dating back to the year 1500): an artist, secured to a metal cable, makes his descent on the rope from St. Mark's Bell Tower to the Doge's Palace

The historic Carnival of Ivrea, a small city in the Region of Piedmont, in the Province of Turin, also makes for a fun carnival experience. One of the oldest (institutionalized in 1808) and most particular festivies in the world, it finds its climax in its spectacular parade and in the fascinating "Battle of the Oranges". The Carnival of Ivrea re-evokes the civil war between the local people and the Emperor's Army that broke out after the murder of the loathed tyrant Ranieri di Biandrate by the hand of the Mugnaia (miller's daughter). The rules of the battle are the following: teams of walking aranceri (lit., orange handlers), personifying the citizens, defend the city's piazzas from attack by the team of the Army throwing oranges (representing the arrows) from its floats to the "citizens." Meanwhile, the parade of the Mugnaia moves along the downtown streets, distributing sweets and gifts to the visitors. Moreover, it is important to notice that in the three days when the traditional parade is held, many floats, folk dancers, musicians and bands - not only from different Italian regions but also from other European countries - take part in the event.

Moving South toward Tuscany, the Carnival of Viareggio is one of the most important and internationally-appreciated events (for example, during the 2011 edition, 325,000 people took part in the parade).The first masked parade was held in 1873, when wealthy middle-class men gathered along the streets protesting against high taxes. The main features that have characterized the event through the ages are undoubtedly the typical floats parading along the promenade in Viareggio. On these floats, huge burlesque papier-mâché masks - predominantly caricatures of the big names in the political, cultural and showbiz world - are broadcast to the masses with grand triumph. Year after year, extraordinary floats boasting increasingly sophisticated movements and spectacular effects show off the outstanding artistic skills of Italian craftsmen merged with new technologies. During Carnival, parties are held on the streets all throughout the night, with the sound of music, masquerades and plenty of fun. 

If you are in the Marches Region you cannot miss Fano during the period of Carnival. In fact, the Carnival of Fano has extremely old origins and it features at least three original elements: the throwing of candies from the floats to the crowd; the characteristic "vulon" mask, parody of the most prominent characters in the city; and the "Arabic" music provided by a band whose instruments consist of tins, coffee pots and jugs.In the South of Italy, Apulia is certainly the Italian region with the greatest number of events: from Massafra to Gallipoli, from Dauno to Manfredonia, without forgetting the Terranovese Carnival in Poggio Imperiale.

However, special attention must be given to the Carnival of Putignano in the Itria Valley, which is the longest Carnival in Italy: it starts on the 26th of December and lasts until Mardi Gras.In addition to the most common events (magnificent masked parades with their fantastic floats made in papier-mâché), the fascinating Propaggini Festival is also celebrated. During this event, dozens of poets perform in dialect for hours on end, one after another, reciting satirical poems in rhyme in the city's main piazza. Moving off the Peninsula and south to the Mediterranean, Sicily proudly boasts some of the richest Carnival traditions. The Carnival of AcirealeCarnival of Acireale, in the Province of Catania, dates back to the 16th Century and was originally celebrated with a citrus fruits battle, while nowadays it is renowned for its parade floats (in particular some of the most impressive are decked with flowers).
The Carnival of Sciacca is also worth mentioning, with origins going back to the Roman Empire! Well-known for its beautiful papier-mâché creations realized by local pottery masters, the Carnival is characterized by floats parading through the old part of the city while accompanied by masked groups dancing to the rhythm of themed music. Every year the Sciacca Carnival ends with the burning of the mask of the king of Carnival, Peppe Nappa, and his float.

Get familiar with Italy's most famous Carnival celebrations.