Carnevale Costumes
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by Maria Lamkin
March 2000

A few hypotheses exist that could explain the possible origin of this term. According to the most widely accepted one, it could derive from the medieval Latin definition carnem levare, "to remove the meat". This word is probably connected to the Catholic prohibition to consume meat during the imminent Lent, particularly on Fridays. The medieval Latin definition of carnem laxare , "to leave the meat", is another element worthy of a particular mention. It is the root of the adjective "carnasciale", from which derives the fourteenth-century "canti carnascialeschi". This literary term connotes songs characterized by a metrical structure akin to the ballads once performed in Florence during Carnival masquerades.

As a festival, "Carnival" originated from propitiatory fertility rites preceding the onset of spring, hence from customs the character of which was half-way between the magic and the ritual. In those epochs, for example, masks were seen as what could confer to their wearer a supernatural power. Moreover, it was commonly believed that the manifestations of hilarity could keep evil spirits at bay. Other, more or less similar celebrations can be attributed to the Roman era. One of these - the Saturnalia - were customarily held in Rome in the second half of December, at the end of the harvest season. These orgiastic rites, characterized by mirth and licentiousness, celebrated the mythical golden age of Saturn. Ceremonies were held in his temple (situated in the Forum) following which the ancient Romans, having worn masks and costumes, amused themselves in the company of acrobats and of people exchanging gifts and roles. For some days, servants and slaves as well could enjoy their own share of merrymaking. Next came the Lupercalia, held at the middle of February in honor of the god that protected flocks. At the culminating moment the "lupercis" (those who kept the wolves at a distance) gathered in the cave of Lupercale at the foot of the Palatine hill where, as the legend goes, the she-wolf had nursed Romulus and Remus. Afterwards, covered with wolf skins, they gave start to the phase of purification which they implemented by whipping passers-by. With the beginning of Christianity this festivity, having lost the character it had at first, became an occasion with which to celebrate for a short period the predominance of mirth, humor, irrationality and mystery over daily reality. Even today the proverb that accompanies this celebration is , "anything goes at Carnival time".

Among the peculiarities of this period is, to start with, imaginativeness. Just as essential are that freedom and transformation of social conventions which represent the fulcrum of masquerade dances and of the impressive parades of floats with allegorical figures. Obviously, the main ingredient is an ensemble of unconscious, irrational forces. The desire to assume another identity (represented by disguising oneself) is therefore paired with the one to vent the fear of deprivations (partly represented by the prohibitions of Lent) and with the wishes relative to the arrival of rebirth (represented by the oncoming spring). The joyous parties, half-way between the grotesque and the comical, are all linked by the presence of more or less elaborate costumes and disguises. Masks represent mostly the characters of the Italian Comedy of Art and connote various theatrical roles as well as the characteristics of the region or city of origin. To exemplify, we will describe two of the most famed masks which, like the rest, are connected with the Comedy of Art. The one is Harlequin (Arlecchino in Italian), a witty character who originally was supposed to have been the leader of a band of demons. As a remnant of this half-devilish origin he still wears a black mask. He represents an ignorant and perpetually hungry servant whose torn dress is sawn with diamond-patterned pieces of multi-colored cloth. The other is Pulcinella, whose stridulous voice calls to mind the cry of a chick (an element that probably explains the origin of his name). This mask of Neapolitan origin represents the cunning slacker of humble origin who carries out all possible expedients to escape from poverty. His costume consists of white pants, a long smock and a beret, complemented by a black mask with a hooked nose. Like in the preceding case, this last element is probably reminiscent of the character's half-devilish origin.

As it occurs in the rest of southern Europe, in Italy as well the peak of this period coincides with the Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) and ends on the following Tuesday, or Carnival day. The denomination with which this is known - "martedì grasso", "fat Tuesday" (or, in French, "Mardi Gras") - originates from the custom to consume a meal based on pork-meat and on fats before the beginning of Lent. There are several locations in which celebrations begin on the preceding Thursday (which, even in this case, is defined as "grasso", or "fat"). The most interesting case is represented by Milan, in Lombardia. This city is renowned for its "Ambrosian" Carnival which is prolonged until the Saturday that follows Ash Wednesday. As the denomination reveals, this custom stems from the city's ancient bishop and current patron St. Ambrose, who modified the starting date of Lent.

This celebration is appreciated in particular by the youngest; they literally love being dressed in fancy costumes which represent for the most part animals, fairy tales characters, or typical folkloristic outfits of foreign countries. They do not wait until the last day to pace up and down their city's main streets, throwing at each other "coriandoli" ("confetti") and "stelle filanti" (continuous paper ribbons used in parades). In several towns the custom is to build large floats often adorned by splendid flowery decorations and by several allegorical figures in pâpier-maché. Their construction may even begin at the end of the preceding Carnival and is aided by the collaboration and sponsorship of many local groups. Ballet and gymnastics schools prepare younger or older students for the parades of Carnival day, which can last hours and are often anticipated by the shorter ones held on the preceding Sunday. By now, parades play the leading role in tens of centers and are accompanied by small groups performing Latin-American music, by young and old dancers, and, naturally, by a loud noise. It goes without saying that the atmosphere, quite lively as it is, is completed by a meat-based menu which food lovers find just as pleasant. This consists of lasagna (particularly in Campania), pork sausages and ravioli filled with pork-meat (especially in the North), and two types of small sweets. The former, called "chiacchiere" or "bugie", consist of a mixture made with flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and lemon peel, this dough is shaped as a ribbon or a strip and fried. The latter, called "castagnole", consist basically of the same dough employed for doughnuts but is shaped in small balls. In the evening the custom is for people to gather together; the meeting point can be either a private party or a public place, and the guests (often disguised) are once again surrounded by delicious food. All of this unfolds through the rhythms of samba, of rumba, and of tunes as lively and noisy as possible.

A desire of enjoyment runs throughout Italy and is felt by the youngest and the oldest alike. The following cities are the backdrop for celebrations which with the passing of time have acquired a considerable fame:


The elegant tradition of the city over the lagoon probably owes its origin to the celebration of the year 1662, which was held to honor its doge's victory on the patriarch of Aquileia. In origin, Carnival day was celebrated only on "fat Thursday" with fireworks and shows in which the entire population - doge included - used to take part. In the XVIII century the nobles led off the tradition to hide behind the "bauta", a hooded black cape made of velvet or silk to which a face-covering mask was attached. In that time frame the city's different crafts guilds and districts both prepared their own masks and costumes. As time went by, the spectacular dimension replaced the symbolic value of the festival, originally meant to give a last allowance of excess before Lent and its penitence. In 1980 local authorities encouraged the rebirth of a carnival which, thanks to a charm that equals that of the city, attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world. Dressed in costumes which their fantasy render extravagant and excessive, but which always surprise for their creativeness, visitors begin invading "calli" (Venice alleys) and canals during the two weeks that precede "fat Tuesday". In addition, this unique atmosphere is due to numerous shows (often performed by street artists) and to parades or activities of various types. For the year 2000 the organizers of this festival - always distinguished for its class - have planned celebrations which will make it if possible even more appealing. This year the Carnival of Venice is therefore inspired by its past (the City of Reminiscence), its present (the City of Continuity), and its future (the City of Desire). Alongside these shows there will be open-air performances of dancers dressed in sumptuous eighteenth-century Venetian clothing and other shows improvised amidst the city’s roads and alleys.

Read on to discover what John Haycraft ("An Anglo-Saxon writing about Italy", as he himself states) tells us about Carnival in Venice:

"… It was a superb festa. On the afternoon of our arrival we went to Piazza San Marco where there was a ball …… A dragon charged at St. George who was complete with flag, halo and visored helmet. A family of black imps gambolled between those disguised simply by pale white masks; a man stood dressed in a white cape, over which was stretched a fishing net, while on his head was a fully rigged sailing boat. By Florian's café, a strange figure with witch's hat and different coloured ribbons hanging below black wigs, squirmed and moved round a pillar, as if making love to it…...We watched a Punch and Judy show at one end of the Piazza...

...The Carnival, though, really expressed itself spontaneously in the streets. There was a market of masks in the Campo dei Santi Apostoli with blue ones, golden ones and many deathly pale, like those of clowns. In the Piazza San Luca, a group from Southern Italy suddenly started dancing a tarantella. Several youths drummed in time. A trumpeter, passing by, joined in, impassive with his white mask over his instrument...

…The whole city was on fire, crackling, warming, without sudden outbursts of destructive flame…. Apart from imps, you would suddenly come across an entire eighteenth-century family, with a father, mother and two children in tricorn hats and powdered wigs, as if the Doge were still in his palace".*

Enjoy this enchanting ambiance!

* John Haycraft, ITALIAN LABYRINTH, Penguin Books , Great Britain 1987 - pages 54-55-56


Starting from the two Sundays that precede this festival, giant and magnificent floats fill up the beautiful boulevard of Viareggio. The imposing papier-mâché allegorical figures that tower over the floats depict with esprit characters and events made famous by current affairs. Every year this parade - which has become an essential component of the traditions of Italian Carnival - is the protagonist of various live broadcasts.


This center celebrates Carnival with the spectacular and traditional "battle of oranges" which is fought along the central streets. Very lively "battles" are waged between "armies"; their soldiers (all of whom are obviously disguised) are either on foot or on horse-driven wagons and endeavor to strike each other with this fruit.


Being as it is the memento of a tradition that goes back to around seven centuries ago, the Carnival of Putignano is viewed from a religious angle. As St. Stephen's corpse was moved here from a monastery located somewhere else in the region, farmers, having paused their work in the fields, followed the event singing and dancing. This Saint is commemorated on 26th December, the date on which this city's Carnival begins. As always, its celebrations end on "fat Tuesday", when a procession accompanies Carnival (represented by a puppet) and his widow to the funeral pyre.

Celebrations abound, each with its own peculiarities and form of amusement. As elsewhere, at Francavilla a Mare parades of floats dominate the scene; another type of celebration takes place at Offida, in the province of Ascoli Piceno (where on "fat Friday" a bullfight takes place between a fake bull and the local populace; in its turn, "fat Tuesday" celebrates the end of Carnival with a fire festival). In Fano (PU) Carnival has as its protagonists a pâpier-maché figure named “Pupo” and the throwing of candy, chocolate and various types of delicatessen onto the crowd of visitors. In Alessandria the allegorical figures of the floats are inspired by the Napoleonic era. Conversely, the celebration of Madonna di Campiglio (TN) has as its inspiring motif the times of the Hapsburg court. Thus the company of nobles starts the parade and is followed by the horse-riding watch guard of the Hussars; all ends with the Grand Imperial Dance. Finally, at Prato allo Stelvio (BZ) witches who will act as protagonists will tour the whole area blackening with coal whoever gets too close to them.

For their originality, the festivals that characterize the region of Sardinia are worthy of a particular mention. One is held at Mamoiada, the inhabitants of which wear anthropomorphic masks. Another takes place in Oristano, where “Su Cumponidori” (a horse-riding hero) is tasked with the duty of passing his sword through the star of fortune, thus bestowing a future of prosperity on his city. At the apex of the ceremony his actions are obviously greeted by the clapping of hands and an ovation; next comes a procession of acrobat-riders who parade along the main road, their face covered by a mask. The third is organized in the city of Tempio Pausania (SS) where the protagonist is “Re Giorgio” (“King Giorgio”), a puppet that is burnt in the main square on Carnival day.

Maria Lamkin can be reached at lamkin@uni.net