A thought-provoking spectacle of colour, irreverence, satire and entertainment:
“Rifiuti da Incubo” which roughly translates as “Nightmare Waste” is supposed to be a comment on the laws that force restaurants to throw away excess food and the taxes and bureaucracy which prevent chefs from being truly creative (photo: Fondazione Carnevale Viareggio)
The theatrical splendour of Carnivale in Venice has been delighting spectators for years. However, those looking for a more alternative way to celebrate Carnival should head to Viareggio, on the Tuscan coast. Irreverent, noisy and vibrant the Viareggio Carnival attracts over 600,000 spectators a year.
“Fat Tuesday” – roots in pagan and traditional festivals
Carnival has roots in pagan and traditional festivals, which were adopted to fit into a way of celebrating “Martedì Grasso”(Fat Tuesday) before the 40-day period of abstinence and fasting associated with Lent. The first Carnival in Viareggio took place in 1873 and featured an elegant procession of decorated carriages through the historical centre. The occasion was apparently interrupted by masked locals, protesting against the increase of taxes, thus beginning the tradition of using Carnival to demonstrate against injustice and draw attention to political and social issues.
Moving papier-mâché figures, some up to 20m tall
On four consecutive Sunday afternoons and on Shrove Tuesday, enormous floats carrying moving papier-mâché figures, some up to 20m tall, travel a 2km circuit along the seafront. Musicians and masked performers from all over the world accompany the procession.
Each float has its own theme, some from myths, fairy tales or popular culture, but most tend to satirise national and international politicians, Italian celebrities and represent issues such as the mafia, tax dodging and the migrant crisis. The Pope on wheels, Angela Merkel giving birth to hundreds of tiny figures of Matteo Renzi and grotesque representations of Silvio Berlusconi are just some of the sights you may witness. This year you can expect to see floats featuring Trump, Putin, Jinping and Jong-un.
Vulgar satirical songs and cliched summer ditties…
Every float has its own particular soundtrack blaring out, ranging in style from vulgar songs about Berlusconi, to the Italian equivalent of “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside.”
Hundreds of costumed participants, some fuelled by a tot of rum to keep the chill at bay, boogie constantly on their perches throwing coloured confetti over spectators or dance in the street in front of their floats.
The waiting list for locals who wish to join in the official procession is years long. Many spectators wear fancy dress and people of all ages join in the celebrations from pirates in pushchairs to scary old ladies in devil costumes.
Not just a party, also a competition
Apart from being a celebration, Carnival in Viareggio is also a competition. Papier-mâché models and floats are divided into four categories: the individual masquerade, the group masquerade featuring 6 models linked by a single theme, and the enormous mechanical floats are divided into 2 categories. The winners in each category are announced on the last Sunday of Carnival and festivities end with an enormous firework display.
Gigantic floats can weigh 40 tonnes
Up to 100 people spend months designing each gigantic float, some weighing as much as 40 tonnes, at the “Cittadella del Carnevale”, a series of hangers and workshops just outside of Viareggio. Here you can find the Carnival Museum, which displays the winning entries since 1927. Experts in the art of papier-mâché use a secret formula that has been passed down through generations of Italians, to create their works of art.
A strong philosophy of recycling permeates the festival. All floats, except the winners in each of the four main categories, are destroyed at the end of the celebrations and the materials are re-used to build the next year’s creations.
Watch out for Burlamacco and Ondina!
A character who never fails to appear during parades is Burlamacco, the official mascot of Viareggio’s Carnival. Created in 1931 by local artist Uberto Bonetti, the figure features the red and white colours, typical of beach umbrellas used in the summer. Burlamacco is usually accompanied by his female friend Ondina, (“Little Wave”), a young bathing beauty.
Traditional Carnival food treats – not to be missed!
No Italian festivity would be complete without traditional food and Carnival has no shortage of specialities, which use ingredients that traditionally could not be eaten during Lent. Fritelle are rice fritters made from soft fried dough, which can be filled with cream or custard. Deep-fried puffy biscuits, which have various names in the different regions of Italy, are known as cenci (“rags” due to their uneven shapes) in Viareggio. Thin sheets of dough made with flour, sugar, butter and eggs are fried in hot oil and then sprinkled with icing sugar. Doughnuts are also traditional snacks at this time of year.
Carnival in Viareggio – once seen, never forgotten!
Carnival in Viareggio is a thought-provoking spectacle of colour, irreverence, satire and entertainment. There is no other festivity quite like it and once seen, the parade is never forgotten. If you don’t have time to find a costume, you can always buy a mask or wig on the day and join in this one-of-a-kind show.
VIAREGGIO CARNIVAL INFO:
Dates of the Carnival in Viareggio vary according to when Shrove Tuesday falls in the year. It is best to check the official website since starting times of the parade also vary on different dates.
Tickets can be purchased on the day at box offices near the promenade, or online in advance. Check prices on the website. There are discounts for children and children under 1,20m enter free.