Carnevale: What is It and What Does it Celebrate?

Feb 08, 2023Cristian Sforza

February marks the beginning of Carnevale, known as Carnival in English-speaking countries. Many will take to the streets in the coming days to celebrate this momentous and pivotal occasion, featuring parades and a surplus of colourful costumes, candescent characters, and comely cuisine. 

While there is every reason to celebrate Carnevale, sometimes it’s important to look back with appreciation and admiration. Do you know how this long-standing tradition came to be? Do you know of the cultural significance of the masquerading parades and feasts that will soon permeate Italian city streets? What kind of food will Italian families dish up before the serenity and tranquillity of Lent take shape? 

Read on to find out all you need to know about one of Italy’s most celebrated and loved events.

What is Carnevale?

Carnevale is seen as a national period of celebration that takes place in the weeks leading up to Easter, specifically before Ash Wednesday. 

Italy always marks Carnevale with unique winter festivals and traditions that consist of entertainment, parties, music, dancing, parades, food and drink. Revellers are free to eat, drink and party without any reproof, hence the idiom ‘anything goes in Carnival.’

Similarly to Mardi Gras in France, Carnevale is seen as the ‘last hurrah’ before the Lent restrictions begin. 

History of Carnevale in Italy

Carnevale can be traced back as far as some of the earliest pagan festivals. As was quite normal at the time, it was adapted and adjusted to align with Catholic rituals in the calendar.

Traditionally, Carnevale is one date of significance, specifically Fat Tuesday (in 2023, that date is 21st February), which precedes Ash Wednesday. However, over time, Italy has celebrated Carnevale in the weeks leading up to Lent, often with the last weekend before Lent being the most elaborate and packed with entertainment.

Italy has many traditional, longstanding celebrations in parts of the country during Carnevale, with Venice, Cento and Viareggio holding the biggest and most flamboyant festivals. However, many smaller, remote Italian towns also hold Carnevale parties and festivals.

During the 40 days of Lent, leisure in the form of parties was seen as off-limits, and luxury foods like sugar, fats and meat were forbidden. Historically, Carnevale was the occasion to indulge without guilt or reproof, before the solemnity and period of reflection and atonement of Lent set in.

Easter is as significant an event in Italy as Christmas, given that it is fervent in Catholic history. Carnevale could last anytime from a few weeks up to a full month, depending on how the year’s calendar looks.

Celebrating Carnevale in Venice in 2023

The Carnival of Venice is arguably the most famous and world-renowned Carnevale celebration. While its roots and origins are topics of debate, within its lore is the Senate declaring a public day of celebration in Venice on the day before Lent. 

Most notable within Venice Carnevale is the mask, creating a mystique and a mystery for its occupant, but also symbolising an intertwining of revellers regardless of social class, race, sex, or religion. 

Carnival masks were constants throughout the Italian Renaissance but found themselves cast aside at the behest of Mussolini during his time in power. However, as of 1979, the holiday has returned to much the same as it was pre-1800s, serving as a reminder of Venice’s rich culture and heritage.

The Carnevale season in Venice will typically see anything from picturesque masked balls in high-end hotels to nightly parades throughout the city streets, featuring citizens dolled up to the nines in radiant and garish costumes. The Piazza San Marco will often play host to some of Venice Carnival’s most frivolous and amusing activities, but onlookers can expect something in every quarter - or ‘sestiere’ - of Venice.

Carnevale Across Italy

  • Cento, Emilia Romagna - The Carnival of Cento involves residents creating the city’s symbolic ‘king’, Tasi, with the creations burned in a blazing bonfire, accompanied by eye-catching fireworks.
  • Viareggio, Tuscany - This city and its surrounding areas host all-night street dances, festivals, concerts and masquerade balls, often making use of intricately-designed, allegorical floats and fireworks.
  • Milan - Featuring much of the same as other cities, a plethora of confetti, parades, costumes and parties, Milan is considered the swansong city for Carnevale. The Ambrosian Carnival, more specifically, commemorates the city’s patron saint and is actually celebrated the first Saturday after Fat Tuesday.
  • Ivrea, Piedmont - The minuscule city of Ivrea hosts a yearly re-enactment of the famous Battaglia delle Arancie (‘battle of the oranges’), symbolising a famous 12th Century rebellion from the townsfolk against the Napoleonic regime.
  • Acireale, Sicily - Paper mache and flower floats often swamp the streets of Acireale during Carnevale, creating beautiful, scenic views, enhanced only by improvising folk poets (‘abbatazzi’).
  • Putignano, Puglia - The stunning Itria Valley town of Putignano is where the longest Carnival celebration takes place. Beginning with the Festa delle Proppagini and ending on Fat Tuesday with pageants, feasts and improvised lyrical poems spoken in local dialects.
  • Fano, Le Marche - Floats filled with sweets, chocolates and candies are showered to the crowds, culminating with a ‘luminaria’, a facade of lights, colour and fire.


Is Carnevale the Same as Mardi Gras?

Both Mardi Gras and Carnevale are hugely significant events, involving performances, parades, music, dancing and feasts. 

The main difference between Carnival and Mardi Gras is that Carnevale is considered the world’s largest and most traditional party in Roman Catholic countries, dating back to Ancient Greek and Egyptian times. Carnevale dates back to times before the emergence of Christianity; Mardi Gras has a firm place etched in Christian culture. However, they both can be considered important Catholic holidays.

What Masks and Costumes Are Worn at Carnevale?

Venetian masks allowed everyone from all walks of life to seamlessly transgress amongst each other, devoting their time to partying and enjoying themselves. 

Masks obscure identities so that the carefree time of Carnevale could be spent free of prejudice or judgement, where the humble elite and wealthy could not be differentiated from the working class. However, masks even have become firmly ingrained in Italian culture, specifically Venice, where they can be worn outside of Carnevale celebrations.

Popular Venetian masks include:

  • Bauta - the most popular Venetian mask, almost ghost-like in appearance, often worn with tabarros and tricorn hats.
  • Gnaga - feline-inspired masks that often involve the wearer carrying baskets and wearing everyday female clothing.
  • Moretta - veiled velvet masks that accentuate feminine features, with a small held button preventing the wearer from speaking.


Characters of Carnevale

Carnevale masks

Within Carnevale lore, there is a whole cast of characters, protagonists and antagonists. Some of the most well-known are as follows:

  • Colombina
  • Arlecchino
  • Pulcinella
  • Brighella
  • Pantalone
  • Rugatino
  • Gianduja
  • Dr Balanzone
  • Stenterello
  • Scaramuccia


Traditional Carnevale Recipes and Dishes

Carnevale is a time when residents indulge in all kinds of food to celebrate. 

From delicate desserts to exquisite and exotic eatables, there are all kinds of delicacies you can expect to find in abundance. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Chiacchiere - also known as Crostoli biscuits; these treats are crispy dough-based treats doused with icing sugar.
  • Sfingi - Sicilian-style doughnuts filled with sultanas and cinnamon.
  • Graffe Napoletane - these Neapolitan fried doughnuts filled with potato, flour and sugar are a go-to for Carnevale parties.
  • Pignuccata - fried, honey-glazed dough balls.
  • Crespelle - Pastries filled with Italian custard.

As for drinks, cocktails like Negronis or Bellinis won’t go amiss. As it’s a celebratory time, delicious sparkling wines like Prosecco Moinet from carefully-selected wineries would be perfect to accompany a festive evening. 

Getting Ready for Carnevale? Why Not Visit Valentina?

Here at Valentina Deli & Kitchen, we’re gearing ourselves up for a festive February. If you plan to celebrate Carnevale in a big way, why not let us prepare you for the best Italian party of the year?

Featuring restaurants and delicatessens in Weybridge and East Sheen, Valentina takes Italian culinary traditions very seriously, using the finest ingredients, sourced from reputable Italian producers. Our restaurants can serve you delicious Italian coffee and breakfast pastries, along with your favourite traditional Italian lunch and dinner dishes. 

On our online shop, we have thousands of staple premium products from pasta, rice and grains to artisan cheeses and gift hampers. We have over 150 Italian wines to offer you by the glass or off our shelves to take home with you. Why not try our wine of the month this February? A delicious, extra dry Prosecco Moinet perfect for celebrating.

For all the finest Italian produce, look no further than Valentina. Book a table today, or give us a call if you have any product requirements. We’d be more than happy to help you. 

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