Huge, colorful floats drive past large, cheering crowds as parades fill the streets and the sound of laughter and music fill the air. Bursts of confetti seem to rain from the sky. People in masks and costumes pour out of parties and masquerade balls throughout the city, spreading the celebration wherever they go.
During Carnival, the party is everywhere and anywhere. Although celebrated throughout the world in cities such as New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, two of the most popular Carnival festivals are actually hosted here in Italy. Carnevale, as it is known in Italian, has found a home in the cities of Venice and Viareggio, both of which have reputations for their large, all-out festivities.
But what’s all the celebrating for anyway? Well, while many partiers don’t realize it, Carnival actually stems from religious traditions. Although starting dates vary around the world, Carnival is the season leading immediately up to Lent. In Christianity, Lent is the period of 40 days used to observe the Passion of Christ. According to tradition, parties may not be held during this time and many foods, including meat, are forbidden. There are different theories as to the origin of the name “carnival” but several of them have to do with the absence of meat during Lent fasting. One theory explains the name as coming from the Italian carne levare literally meaning to “remove meat.” Another suggests it is derived from the Latin term carne vale meaning farewell to meat, as in the last days that people could eat it before Lent.
Many people also choose to give up a vice or habit during this period of religious commemoration. Carnival then is basically a season of celebration for people to get all their feasting and partying done before the more somber time of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This is also why traditionally, the biggest night of the season is the last one, Fat Tuesday also known as Shrove Tuesday, directly before the starting Wednesday of Lent.
Some of the most well-known traditions of Italian Carnival, however, date from as far back as the medieval age. Famous traditions like the elaborate parades and mask wearing spread from Italy to other countries like Spain, France and Portugal where they then spread farther to New Orleans and South America.
The famous Carnival of Venice, first recorded in 1268, is one of the oldest and biggest celebrations held in the world. Masks have always been a staple of the festivities, and even today they continue to be a main feature of not just the season but of Venice itself. The tradition has evolved to include in addition to the masks, full costumes for many of the people parading through the crowded Venetian streets during the season. Partiers can be seen in everything from masks and elegant traditional ball gowns to modern day comic book characters. The theme of this year’s Carnival, happening from January 25 to February 5, is “Sensation: 6 senses for 6 quarters.” Each of Venice’s six quarters will involve one of the senses such as sight, sound or touch.
Though not as old as the Venetian Carnival, another popular celebration is that of Viareggio’s in Tuscany. Starting in 1873, Viareggio’s Carnival began as a folk event and has grown into a huge celebration that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across Italy and the world. It is most famous for its large paper mache floats and puppets, which usually satirize political figures or current social issues. This year’s Carnival will be a“celebration in the name of peace, love and solidarity” and is expected to draw at least 800,000 guests. The massive floats will parade down Viareggio’s viali a mare, or sea promenades, on January 20 and 27 and February 3, 5 and 10.
FlorenceForFun will offer trips to both Carnival celebrations:
The trip to Venice costs 65€ and includes private coach transportation to and from Venice, boat ride down the Grand Canal, Venice Map and culture/history information sheet and tour leader.
The trip to Viareggio costs 45€ and includes transportation, tour leader and entrance to the Mascherata, or Carnival parade.
Both trips leave from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station.
More infomation and reservations http://www.florenceforfun.org/carnival