For centuries the pre-Lent festivities of carnevale sumptuously celebrated “carne,” a word that translates as both "meat' and "flesh," in every sense. However, the name comes specifically from the Latin for meat (carnem) and “take away or remove” (levare). A church decree dating back to 653 declared that anyone who ate meat during the forty days of Lent (Quaresima in Italian) could not receive communion on Easter. Charlemagne reportedly sentenced Lenten meat-eaters to death.
The prospect of long months without meat or merriment inspired Italians to gorge themselves throughout -- and often long before -- la settimana grassa (the fat week) before Ash Wednesday. It also inspired a luscious vocabulary for the culinary treats of this festive time, such as the delicate fried pastries we might call fritters.
In Piedmont and Liguria, they’re bugie (little lies); in Tuscany, cenci (rags); in Emilia-Romagna, lattughe (lettuce leaves); in Milan, chiacchiere, the same word Italians use for gossip or chatting. Cooks elsewhere may call them nastri delle suore (nuns’ ribbons), galani or sfrappe and add ingredients such as raisins and anise.
The sin-drenched Venetian Republic was famous for indulgences of carne in its more sensual sense. During Carnevale, which lasted for months, party-goers of all classes hid their identities behind elaborate maschere (masks).
Artisans known as mascherari gained fame for their exquisite creations, which came in three varieties. The bauta covered the entire face but had no mouth opening and a lot of gilding. The oval-shaped moretta was worn by women, often along with a veil. The full-face white larva (from the Latin for mask or ghost) was made of fine wax cloth.
Carnevale also inspired some pithy Italian axioms. "A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale," revelers often say. "Anything goes at Carnival time." But don't get carried away with the romance of the moment. "L’amore di Carnevale muore in Quaresima," wise souls caution, "A love that starts during Carnival dies in Lent."
The allure of Venice, however, outlasts the days of Carnevale. You can stroll its calle (streets), linger in its splendid piazze, savor its specialties, drink its wine, ride in a gondola (or even learn to row one), watch the glass-blowers on Murano island—and immerse yourself in the languages, both Italian and the Venetian dialect, of its residents.
This April my friend Melissa Muldoon, creator of the exuberant Diario di una Studentessa Matta (Diary of a Crazy Student), and Diego Cattaneo, director of the Venice Italian School, are offering all these experiences and more during a magical ten-day immersion in language and culture. Click here for details.
Words and Expressions:
fare le frittelle –- literally, to make the fritters; to celebrate Carnival
carnevalone –- the four extra days of Carnevale celebrated in places like Milan
carnevalata –- carnival revelry
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.