The Viareggio Carnival and The History of Carnival Celebrations

The Viareggio Carnival and The History of Carnival Celebrations

Viareggio is known for two things: the sea and its Carnival. This small coastal city in the province of Lucca hosts one of the most important carnivals in the world. During the cheerful celebrations, the Viareggio promenade overflows with people, music, and the majestic Carri Allegorici (allegorical floats). The floats - made of paper mache - address the great themes of the contemporary world with a satiric approach: from national and international politics to the environment and society.

The Viareggio Carnival is an annual event, celebrating its 150th year in 2023. If you’re considering a trip to Tuscany this year, the Carnival parade will be running every Sunday through the month of February, with an additional parade on Shrove Tuesday, and it is definitely worth visiting during your trip.

In this article we will dive into the history of the carnival, including the artisanal know-how of Viareggio Carnival, and the traditions tied to this event. Keep reading if you want to know more!

The History of Carnival

Saturnalia painting, by Thomas Couture

Carnival is a historical event celebrated worldwide, with the first celebration dating back many thousands of years. Carnival is a movable feast, interlinked with Christian festivities: the last day of carnival precedes the beginning of the Lent period, the 40 days of penance before Easter. But the carnival tradition - or celebration like it - is much more ancient than Christianity.

In ancient Rome, February was the month in which the refound fertility of the earth was celebrated, and the Roman festivals known as Saturnalia - celebration of Saturno, God of of agriculture and civilisation - had the same characteristics as the carnival: banquets, dances, jokes and a temporary subversion of social hierarchies. And before that, in ancient Greek, the Dionysias, celebrated in honour of the god Dionysus - God of the vine, wine and mystical delirium - banquets had the same role.

The subversion  of morality and societal norms are fundamental; masks aided in the subversion of the social order, helping people to forget their roles within the regular social hierarchy.

When Christianity became the official religion with Emperor Constantine, Carnival was considered a pagan festival, and therefore banned. The celebrations, however, remained intact, and changed together with society. Even in the Middle Ages, carnival continued to be celebrated, and the theme of the suspension of morals and conventional social rules remained; but it was in the Renascence, in particular in Florence, during Lorenzo de Medici’s lordship, that the carnival celebrations became sumptuous. All social classes participated en masse and the rulers organised shows for everyone's amusement.

La Commedia dell’Arte and the traditional Italian Maschere

Pierrot mask

The Commedia dell'Arte is a theatrical movement born in Italy in the 16th century. It has two main characteristics: it leaves a lot of space for actors to improvise - there are several fixed plot-based scenarios on which the story is based  - and stages the so-called "maschere" (masks in Italian). The maschere are characters with fixed and stereotyped features, and each one has an iconic mask and garment. Many of them are linked to a specific Italian region, and today they are the most traditional and famous carnival masks. The best-known are:

  • Pantalone, called the Magnificent, is a very famous Venetian mask. He is an elderly merchant that often competes with young men in an attempt to win over some young women (like in the case of Arlecchino and Colombina). he wears a long zimarra - a masculine overcoat - black which covers red tights. Pantalone has a robust and ungainly build, and a black mask with a hooked nose and a goat's beard.
  • Arlecchino, a mask from Bergamo, who is the trickster servant, cheerful but also cunning and perpetually hungry. His garments consist of a suit made of colourful patchwork (oftentimes cut in a rhombus shape). He is in love with Colombina and works for Pantalone.
  • Colombina is a Venetian servant who works for Pantalone and is in love with Arlecchino. During the Venice carnival, “il volo della colombina” (the flight of the dove)  is celebrated. This consists of the descent on a rope of an artist in the role of Colombia. The rope stretched from the belfry of the bell tower of San Marco towards the Doge's palace.
  • Balanzone, who comes from Bologna, is also known as the Doctor. He is a serious and presumptuous character and is represented as a man with red and thick cheeks. He wears the black suit of the professors at the University of Bologna and usually gesticulates a lot.  He has a small mask on his face that only covers his eyebrows and nose, resting on two large moustaches.
  • Pierrot is the French take on Zanni, the oldest mask of the servant, from which many other characters have originated over time. He wears a white suit with a large ruffle collar; his white mask covers his entire face, and a - usually - black teardrop comes down from the left eye.

Viareggio’s Allegorical Floats and The Art of Paper-Mache

Viareggio paper mache float

Viareggio Carnival has all the elements of the tradition, but also lots of peculiarity and uniqueness. The first carnival held in Viareggio dates back to 1873, and it was held only for the occasion of Shrove Tuesday - the celebration that concludes the carnival week and precedes Ash Wednesday, which instead marks the beginning of Lent. Today the celebrations take place over a month: a parade every Sunday (for a total of 4) and one on Shrove Tuesday.

On these occasions, the colossal allegorical floats parade in the promenade of Viareggio. The floats are primarily made of paper mache, covering a mechanical structure that allows different parts to move and make sounds. Each float has a satiric theme - usually linked to politics, social issues, or environmental topics - and a team of people, dressed according to the theme, following the float on the parade.  Other groups of masked people participate in the parade: they all follow a common theme, but it’s not linked to a float; they are called “Le Mascherate”. Both floats and Mascherate compete for different prizes, such as the scenography, the movements that a float can do, or the best masks.

But what is the paper mache technique? This technique has been a tradition of Viareggio Carnival since 1925, the year in which Antonio D'Arliano made the first paper-mache float. It consists of a preparation composed of water, paper and flour.

The manufacturing process starts with the creation of a clay model on which plaster is poured to obtain the negative cast, where strips of paper previously soaked in the mixture of water and flour (or glue) are applied. Once the paper-mache is dry, it is detached from the mould and smoothed with sandpaper, decorated with acrylic or tempera colours, and covered with a final glossy protective varnish.

Thanks to this process, it is possible to mould very large, empty, and light shapes, which is ideal for making them move. Furthermore, the paper is often recycled, making the entire process sustainable.

Il Burlamacco and La Cittadella del Carnevale

The Burlamacco, Viareggio typical mask

The symbol of the Viareggio Carnival is Il Burlamacco: this Maschera was born in the summer of 1930, drawn by Uberto Bonetti - teacher, painter, graphic and set designer. His costume is a composition of elements from several maschere from Commedia dell’Arte, like the check bodysuit, similar to the one worn by Arlecchino. At the side of Burlamacco stands Ondina, a figure that embodies the image of a sunny summer on the beaches of Viareggio. Together the two figures are icons of the two seasons of the city of Viareggio: summer and Carnival.

If you are in Viareggio during the summer and you are curious to know more about the Carnival, you can visit the Cittadella del Carnevale. Inaugurated on 15 December 2001, the Citadel is the largest and most important Italian theme centre dedicated to the carnival. Here you will find concentrated workshops for the builders, the hangars in which the gigantic wagons are built and kept, two museums and a historical documentary centre. There is also an arena where several related events are hosted during the year.

The Viareggio Carnival is one of the most colourful and cheerful events in Italy, one you can’t miss if you happen to be there in the right period. In the Lucca and Viareggio area, there are lots of things to discover throughout the year; that’s why we have put together the Lucca Travel Guide. Furthermore, If you are still looking for the perfect villa to rent in Lucca, check out our catalogue of beautiful properties.

We will be happy to support you in planning your dream vacation in one of our Tuscany villas, so please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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