There’s no time like Carnevale in Italy. The roots of this tradition go back to the ancient Roman Saturnalia, which marked the transition from winter to spring. Early Christians may have rejected pagan rites, but they preserved the exuberant celebrations that brightened the darkest, coldest months of the year.
The name “Carnevale” comes 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 Quaresima (Lent) could not receive communion on Easter. Charlemagne reportedly sentenced Lenten meat-eaters to death.
According to le Monnier's Dictionary of the Italian Language, Carne Levare (Remove Meat) was first used for the sumptuous dinner eaten the night before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Over the years Carnevale was gradually extended to cover the entire period from Epiphany to la settimana grassa (the fat week) before Ash Wednesday.
An almost pagan spirit of enjoyment and transgression is evident in the traditional recipes for this time of year. Southern Italians prepare a migliaccio di polenta made with corn meal, sausages, and grated cheese. Neapolitans savor lasagne di Carnevale, a dish so rich that poorer families could afford to prepare it only once a year.
Throughout much of the peninsula, Italians enjoy sweets such as castagnole (sponge balls, plain or filled with ricotta cheese, custard, or chocolate), tortelli with raisins and cinnamon, and cicerchiata (pastry balls coated in honey). The delicate fried pastries we might call fritters take different names in different regions.
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, frappe, or sfrappe and add ingredients such as raisins and anise.
The sin-drenched Venetian Republic was famous for indulgences of a more sensual nature. 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."
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
coriandoli -– confetti
stelle filanti -- streamers
carro allegorico –- carnival float
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.
Click below to see a dazzling selection of masks and costumes from last year's Venetian Carnevale: