You might be surprised to learn that the origins of some of the most famous carnivals in the world, such as Mardi Gras, or the massive Carnival in Rio, began in ancient Rome. Being traced as far back as 31 B.C., ancient Romans would host a celebration called Saturnalia to honor the god Saturn. During this time, feasting and face-painting would occur as well as gambling and other entertainments. The event was a period of general liberation and celebration.
Although a time of celebration, it could also be a time of disorganization and sometimes chaos. It was also considered a Pagan holiday and a time when many Romans disregarded social rules and threw manners out the window. So when the Christian church took over Roman culture, Saturnalia was modified to celebrate the coming of Spring and the Christian practice of Lent. The celebration became known as Carnevale in Italy and is celebrated for roughly two weeks during February. The festivities can also start as early as January and end as late as March.
In Italy, Carnevale is celebrated in every nook and cranny, from large towns like Venice to small villages in the countryside. Carnevale is a time of celebration and indulgence. The two to three weeks are filled with street performances, costume balls, face painting, lavish floats, and plenty of food. Since Lent's time is spent avoiding rich foods such as meat, sugars, and fried foods, there is plenty to go around during Carnevale. Italian families cook up Lasanga di Carnevale, fried pastries called Galani, a spongey sheet cake named Schiacciata alla Fiorentina, and so much more. Many of these recipes called for an excess of olive oil, so Italian families always make sure to have a large stock.
A precursor to Ash Wednesday and Lent, the holiday of Carnevale is truly a time of festivity and decadence. There are typically the most lavish celebrations on the last day of Carnevale, which is known as 'Shrove Tuesday' and is the equivalent to 'Fat Tuesday' during Mardi Gras. These final few days before Lent are spent celebrating and indulging in more of the fatty foods that will be avoided during Lent's meditative season.
During the Renaissance, Pope Paul II introduced the masquerade ball, which quickly gained popularity and created an extravagant mask-wearing culture. Celebrated on the final days of Carnevale, the masquerades were enormous costume banquets that represented a culmination of previous weeks of excess. The idea of a masquerade to celebrate became so loved that the idea spread to other areas of the world. Now we see extravagant masquerades in places such as New Orleans and Brazil, creating some of the famous masked celebrations we know today.
The introduction of the masquerade ball became known for the mask-wearing, or le maschere. The wearing of masks became popular because it would conceal an individual's identity, leaving them free to indulge in Carnevale. Venetian masks (link) have become the most well known and include a variety of styles. Some of the most popular Venetian style masks are meant to be worn during a masquerade or are intended to represent the characters of 'maschere della Commedia dell'Arte'. The most famous of these characters include Pantalone, Arlecchino or Harlequin, and Zanni.
Today, Carnevale is still celebrated throughout Italy, with some of the most famous carnivals taking place in Venice, Verona, and Viareggio. During the last few days of Carnevale, the towns carry out the most extravagant celebrations and traditions. For example, in true Carnevale style, over 3,000 pounds of candy are thrown into the crowd at Verona's festival. Another notable event is the Battle of the Oranges in Piemonte, where residents and tourists gather to have one of the largest food fights in Europe. During the Battle of the Oranges, over half a million oranges are thrown and scattered through the town center.
Carnevale is even more popular today than when it was celebrated as Saturnalia back in 31 B.C. Similar celebrations occur in Columbia, France, Spain, Canada, and many other countries; all created as a result of Saturnalia/ Carnevale. From inspiring the world's largest carnival, Carnival Rio de Janeiro, to creating a culture of masquerades and costume, Carnevale is an adored tradition in every Italian household.