Carnevale in Italy brings a burst of color to the dark, cold months of winter.   

A huge final celebration to eat, drink and be merry before the restrictions and solemnity of Lent, the festivities in Italy aren’t reserved just to Mardi Gras.

Starting about a month before Ash Wednesday, revelers in Italy celebrate for multiple weekends with sweeping parades, elaborate masks and plenty of brightly colored confetti. You can find traditional Carnival sweets in the bakeries and plenty of tricks and mischief. After all, a Carnevale, ogni scherzo vale! That is, anything goes during Carnival. 

Carnevale in Italy  

A Carnival parade in Putignano, Puglia. Photo by Salvatore Capotorto from Pixabay

If the celebrations seem a little over-the-top, consider that the roots of this festival can be traced to Ancient Greece and Rome in celebrations that honored the god Bacchus (of wine) and Saturn. Some say they go even further back to primitive celebrations of the end of winter and beginning of spring.  

Though its history is pagan, the festival was so widely celebrated and the tradition so strong that it was quickly adapted to fit into the Catholic rituals. During the 40 days of Lent, parties were forbidden and meat, sugar and fats were off-limits. Carnival fit in perfectly as a last hurrah and a way to finish all the stores of rich food and drink before Lent.  

After weeks of mischief and parties, expect a more pious and solemn atmosphere in Italy during the weeks of Lent. Easter in Italy is as strongly felt and celebrated as Christmas.  

Officially, Carnevale is held on Fat Tuesday – in 2020 that is on February 25 – but of course the weekend before sees celebrations just as big or even bigger! Future Carnival dates are February 16, 2021; March 1, 2022; and February 21, 2023.   

Where to Celebrate Carnevale in Italy  

Though everyone knows of the masks and parades of Venice, every town in Italy, even the smallest, has its own Carnevale parade. Small towns will have day care centers and school children march in the street or ride atop team-made floats and school bands play. Bigger cities will bring together floats, bands, dance troupes and group costumes for the parades.  

There are some cities, however, that regularly outdo themselves. Here are some of the biggest, most famous Carnival celebrations in all of Italy:  

Venice, Veneto 

Photo by Serge WOLFGANG from Pixabay

Full of mystery, mischief and intrigue, the Carnival of Venice is undoubtedly one of the most famous Carnival celebrations in the entire world.  

Though the start of Venice’s Carnival is disputed, most attribute it to 1296, with an official document from the Senate of Venice declaring a public celebration on the day before Lent. Created as an allowance for citizens for some fun and revelry, the mask fit in perfectly, allowing citizens to celebrate independently of social class or religion.  

Carnival masks remained a fixture through the Renaissance, and masked comedy troupes would perform in the piazzas of Venice in the 16th century. These same masks and bacchanalia were banned by the Austrians in the 18th century and again by Mussolini in the 1930s.  

After many years, the holiday returned in 1979 in a celebration of the history and culture of Venice. 

The 2020 Venice Carnival will begin on Saturday, February 8 and end on Tuesday, February 25. Visitors can view events like the water parade, mask competitions or the infamous flight of the angel, or simply stroll the UNESCO World Heritage city and to see the elaborate and unique costumes.  

Today roughly 3 million people travel to Venice to participate in the infamous festa Veneziana, making it the most important event of the city and the biggest carnival celebration in Italy.    

Viareggio, Tuscany 

Another one of the most important Carnival celebrations in Italy is in Viareggio, on the coast of Tuscany. Started in the late 1800s by the rich bourgeois class who wanted to freely express their discontent of the high taxes, today the attitude continues with massive papier mâché floats satirizing big political and cultural names.  

The celebration is most known for these elaborate and impressive floats, made with extraordinary detail and engineering. The tradition is so important, that float-makers begin their work an entire year before Carnival!  

Besides the allegorical floats, the entire Carnival of Viareggio is followed by all night musical dances in the streets. This tradition started in the 1920s as “colored all-night dances” or veglioni coloratiwhere women dressed in specific colors and even the jewelry, confetti and decorations had to match. That plus the city’s Art Deco architecture make for the perfect scenography. 

The Carnevale di Viareggio takes place on Fat Tuesday, as well as the four Sundays preceding it. The final parade is followed by a huge fireworks show. Though admission is charged to view the parade, there are festivals, cultural events, concerts and masked balls for free throughout the season. 

Acireale, Sicily  

Photo by Carnaval.com Studios (flickr)

Repeatedly described as one of Italy’s most beautiful Carnivals, this is likely thanks to the intricate floats decorated with fresh flowers, adding beauty and perfume to the streets of Acireale.  

Allegorical papier mâché floats parade down the Baroque streets of Acireale during the Carnival season, but the surprise is in the flower floats.  Dating back to the 16th-century, revelers once celebrated Carnival in Acireale by throwing rotten eggs and lemons, but when those games were officially banned, they were replaced by a much more cultured character: Folk poets, known as abbatazzi, who improvised verses on the streets of the city.  

Today, both the floats and poets can still be found and the Carnival of Acireale is widely entitled the “best Carnival in Sicily.” It is so popular, in fact, that the entire thing is reproduced in the balmy summer air of August. 

Ivrea, Piedmont 

The Carnival of Ivrea is likely the most unique Carnival celebration in Italy. Every year Ivrea, a tiny city near Turin in Piedmont, hosts its famous Battaglia delle Arancie (Battle of the Oranges) in the final days of the Carnival season.  

The battle symbolizes an event in 1194 when the people of Ivrea rebelled against the Royal Napoleonic Troops. It is said that the miller’s daughter, “la Mugnaia,” slayed the hated tyrant who ruled the city after he tried to take her, kicking off a rebellion that ultimately won the townsfolk a bit more freedom.  

Today, la Mugnaia is always represented by a local beauty, and the event is remembered with an enormous orange battle between helmeted “soldiers” in carriages and unprotected “townspeople” representing different districts on the ground. Those that don’t want to participate wear the traditional berretto rosso, red hats, to be excluded from the battle and can stay protected behind massive nets.  

Putignano, Puglia 

The region of Puglia in Italy’s heel likely has the most Carnival celebrations of any region, but the most famous is in Putignano.  

Located in the beautiful Itria Valley, home of trulli houses and interesting karst caves, the ancient town of Putignano is home to the longest Carnival celebration in all of Italy. Every year it starts on Santo Stefano, December 26th, with the Festa delle Propaggini, in which poets recite in local dialect, and ends on Fat Tuesday with a parade and the “funeral” of Carnival, represented as a pig.  

Not only is it the longest Carnival celebration, but it is one of the oldest in all of Europe. Putignano’s Carnival dates as far back as 1394, when relics of St. Stephens were transferred inland to Putignano for protection against invaders. The move was so celebrated that peasants left the vineyards to follow the procession, exploding into song and dance upon arrival, as well as improvised lyrics and poems, satirizing against politicians and news, habits and current events in the local dialect. 

After December 26, this long Carnival is celebrated every Thursday, but it’s not until the feast day of St. Anthony the Abate, January 17, that Carnival really takes off with parties, feasts, pageants, and parades. From then until Fat Tuesday, every day is Carnival!   

Fano, Le Marche 

Photo from @ilcarnevaledifano

It’s not confetti or tinsel or ribbons thrown about during Fano’s Carnival, but sweets. With the “getto” or throw, the masked floats toss hundreds of pounds of sweets, candies and chocolates to the crowds below. (The crowds come prepared with paper cones to catch the goodies!) 

Said to have started in 1347 during a rare moment of peace between two rival families of the time, the Carnival of Fano is known as the sweetest Carnival of Italy.  

The floats parade up and down the streets of Fano, ending in a final round with a “luminaria” with lights, fire and color added as night falls. Finally, a massive papier mâché puppet known as “Pupo” or “Vulon” is burnt in the main square to large crowds on the day of Mardi Gras, a practice that is said to take away winter together with the sins of the townspeople.   

Cento, Emilia Romagna  

The Carnival of Cento is known as far back as 1615, thanks to frescoes by hometown painter Gian Francesco “Guercino” Barbieri that document the celebration, but its most celebrated traditions are more recent.   

In the early 1900s the people created their own king to symbolize the city’s Carnival, a character to represent his fellow citizens, called Tasi.   

During the final parade, Tasi is burned in a bonfire in front of the Rocca while an impressive fireworks show lights up the sky in a scenographic display. Before he is burned, his will is read in the local dialect and his possessions are given to Cento’s most famous citizens – actual citizens of Cento!  

In 1993, the Cento Carnival was twinned with the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro and began displaying allegorical floats inspired by the exhibitions of Rio. Running for five Sundays prior to Lent, the parades circle the city multiple times and throw inflatable and soft objects into the crowd.   

Milan, Italy 

Photo from inLombardia

Technically, the Carnival celebrations in Milan aren’t much different than any of the others. There are parades and parties, confetti and costumes. The difference here is all in the timing.   

Milan’s carnival is the last to be celebrated. The Ambrosian Carnival, named after Milan’s patron saint, holds its final party after the Italian Carnival has officially ended.  

As tradition has it, the city’s patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio (St. Ambrose) was on a religious pilgrimage and asked to postpone the final Carnival celebrations until he got back. So every year, Milan’s carnival is celebrated four days later on the Saturday after Fat Tuesday, ending the Carnival season in the beautiful Piazza del Duomo. 

 

Similar stories

The Best Destinations to Celebrate the Holidays in Italy  

13 of The Most Beautiful Gardens in Italy

Cris’ Valdostana Cutlets

The holiday season is a wonderful time to see Italy. Though winter is technically the low season, December sees a peak of visitors and festivities with a wealth of special events and seasonal sights.   

No matter where you are in the Bel Paese, you’re sure to feel the festive atmosphere. Italian cities big and small decorate their centers with lights, garland and trees, and shops deck out their windows for the holidays. All of Italy is beautiful in December, but here’s where to go for that something specific.

Where to Go and Why: 

Vatican City for the religious festivities 

St. Peter's Basilica in lights during the holidays in Italy
St. Peter’s Piazza decorated for Christmas. Photo by Giuseppe Milo on Flickr 

Italy is a predominately Roman Catholic country and the holiday season reflects that. Even if you’re not religious, seeing or participating in a mass is a chance to get to know the local culture and Italians Christmastime traditions. Each year on December 24th there is midnight mass held by the Pope in Saint Peter’s Basilica. (It’s often held before midnight, so check online). For those with only a passing interest or simply without a seat, join the crowd in St. Peter’s Piazza to follow the mass on a big-screen TV. Come back at noon on Christmas Day for the Pope’s Christmas message which he gives from his apartment overlooking the square. The square itself is decorated with a massive Christmas tree and a life-size nativity scene. 

Bolzano for the over-the-top Christmas markets 

All of Trentino Alto-Adige is known for its beautiful Christmas market coming from its long Austrian heritage, but known as is large or over-the-top as Bolzano’s. Going strong for nearly 30 years, the Bolzano Christmas Market strictly sells only locally produced options. Here you can find the region’s handiwork at play with wooden statuettes, decorations and nativities, as well as musical instruments, decorative candles, slippers, hats, stationary and more. 

Besides the commercial aspect of the market with many handcrafted gifts and artwork, visitors can see the artisans at work in the craft tent, enjoy local dishes like strudel and mulled wine and enjoy horse-drawn carriage wines, a merry-go-round or puppet theatre for the little ones.  

Naples for artisanal Nativity masterpieces 

Nowhere in Italy is more famous for its handcrafted Nativity scenes than Naples, and ground zero for this work is via San Gregorio Armeno. A long pedestrian street in the historic center, there are hundreds of shops featuring handmade presepibut each shop will likely have a slightly different style, color, cut or characters. Not only can you find the classic Jesus, Mary and Joseph figurines, but you can expand on your Nativity to create a veritable city with shepherds, blacksmiths and vendors of all kinds, as well as more modern ideas like pizza-makers, politicians and soccer players.  

If the crowds get to be too much on “Christmas Alley” (as San Gregorio Armeno is often called) head to the Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples to see the largest Nativity scene in the world, with more than 500 different people, animal, angel and object figurines. 

Matera for the living Nativity scene 

Known as the presepi viventi, a living nativity scene is when costumed people act out some or all of the Christmas story, usually on Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s on December 26 and the Epiphany on January 6 (when the Three Wise Men brought their gifts to Jesus). There are dozens of living Nativity scenes throughout Italy. In Chia, Lazio there are more than 500 actors. Barga in Tuscany includes at least a hundred costumed people walking through the town behind Mary and Joseph asking for lodging and of course Greccio, Lazio is said to be the home of the very first Nativity scene when Saint Francis of Assisi constructed one in a cave there in 1223.  

Still, only one has the nearly surreal backdrop of the sassi di Matera. Houses, churches and monasteries were carved and created in caverns of Matera’s rocks. A completely unique destination no matter the time of year, the landscape is even more evocative with these biblical reenactments. 

Turin for the heart-warming coffeehouses  

A decadent Bicerin is just what you need to warm up after sightseeing in December. Photo by Jeremy Hunsinger on Wikicommons

Turin is known for its chocolate, and what better time of year to indulge in this local treat than the holiday season? You can try the Gianduia chocolate or a creamy hot chocolate, but to experience the coffeehouse culture at its most decadent, order a Bicerin. A traditional drink from Piedmont, it’s a mix of chocolate, coffee and cream that will for sure warm you up on a cold winter day.  

Orvieto for the week-long Jazz Festival 

Umbria’s winter edition is held each December in the suggestive town of Orvieto for five days. That’s five days of music starting from noon and running late into the night at different times and different venues. From the Emilio Greco Museum to the Sala Etrusca in the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo filled with pianists, food, wine and jazz in the Palazzo dei Sette or the by now annual send off with the Funk Off band in the streets where the city itself is the true location.  

Rome for massive Hanukkah celebrations  

Though the city is home to the seat of the Roman Catholic religion, Rome, and all of Italy, has a large Jewish population and a long Jewish history. A huge, twenty-foot menorah is set up in Piazza Barberini, with crowds to match the size every night for the lighting ceremony. A smaller menorah can be found in Piazza Bologna for those wanting to escape the crowds. Mid-December you can join a lively Hanukkah street party on Via del Portico d’Ottavia, in Rome’s Jewish quarter with dancing, processions and, of course, food and wine. And instead of a jelly doughnut, go for the Roman version: the Fritelle de Chanuka. Sweet dough fritters mixed with raisins and anise seeds, fried in oil and topped with hot honey, they’re delicious, local and the perfect way to celebrate Hanukkah in Rome! 

Milan for the Christmas shopping and panettone

The galleria in Milan with lights and a tree for the holidays in Italy
The beautiful ‘Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II’ in the centre of Milan all lit up for the holidays. Photo by Ralf Steinberger on Flickr

Milan and shopping go hand-in-hand and that doesn’t change for Christmas shopping. Beyond the lights and enormous Christmas tree in front of the Duomo, shops big and small go all out on their window displays. Worth it even just to window shop, it also makes last-minute gift buying a breeze. When in doubt, go for the city’s hometown Christmas dessert and buy an artisanal panettone. A sweet bread with candied fruits and raisins, panettone has its origins in Milan, but is now a staple throughout Italy during the holidays. 

Agnone for a river of fire parade

Every year in the small region of Molise, the town of Agnone gives a nod to its roots in their Christmas fire festival, called the Ndocciata. On Christmas Eve locals in traditional dress carry large, fan-shapped wooden torches through the town, creating a river of fire and light to vigil the coming of Christmas. The parade ends in a huge central bonfire. Recently, the town has held a symbolic festival another weekend before Christmas Eve to allow even visitors to participate.  

Bologna for a unique New Year’s Eve tradition 

Bologna celebrates New Year’s Eve with the Fiera del Bue Grasso, or the fat ox fair. The ox is decorated with flowers and ribbons and is the prize for a lottery held to see who will win the ox! People join the procession with candles and fireworks until it ends just before midnight in Piazza Maggiore. There, all of Bologna rings in the new year and symbolically “burns” the old year at midnight by throwing a special dummy known as the Vecchione into a large public bonfire. Designed by a different artist each year, the dummy is worth a look before his destruction and the Piazza has live music, performances and a street market as well.  

Venice for a mass New Year’s Eve kiss 

There's no place or time as atmospheric as the holidays in Italy

There are few places as romantic as Venice. The atmosphere is charged with beauty and love and on New Year’s Eve it’s even more electric with music, fireworks and a plethora of sparkling wine toasts. See the traditional concert in Teatro la Fenice, but hustle to Piazza San Marco before midnight for the classic “mass kiss” when the bells ring in the New Year. 

Otranto to see the first dawn of the year in Italy 

The white city in Puglia, Italy’s heel of the boot, celebrates the New Year with the “Alba dei Popoli” festival, or Dawn of the People, a local party that ends at dawn. That’s because the Punta Palascia lighthouse in Otranto is Italy’s easternmost spot, separating the Ionian Sea from the Adriatic, and the first opportunity to see the dawn of the new year in Italy.  

Florence for traditional Epiphany celebrations 

The Epiphany on January 6th is the day the three wise men finally reached baby Jesus. In Italy it’s traditionally celebrated by an ugly but friendly “witch” known as La Befana who comes during the night to fill children’s shoes or stockings with candy, toys and sweets. In fact, most people in Italy refer to the Epiphany as “la Befana” and celebrations throughout Italy feature her. In Florence, however, the holiday’s holier roots are still visible every year with a historical procession through the heart of the city. Known as the Calvalcade of the Magi, participants dress in traditional costume to represent the journey of the Magi to Jesus. The parade starts from Palazzo Pitti, crosses the Arno River and ends at the Duomo, with a stop in Piazza della Signoria for a flag throwing performance! 

Massive christmas star decoration set up for the holidays in Italy
The Christmas Star leaping from the ancient Verona Arena. Photo by Gianni Crestani from Pixabay

Italians have a saying, “l’Epifania tutte le feste porta via,” meaning with the Epiphany the holidays are over. The holiday season is long in Italy – trees are up well past New Years – but come January 6th it’s time to take down the tree, pack up the decorations and put a close to the festivities. That is, until Carnival season!

Want to celebrate the holidays in Italy? Give yourself the perfect gift with a tailored trip just for you! Contact us today for help designing your dream journey for a no-stress, hassle-free holiday in beautiful Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similar stories

Cris’ Carbonara

Touring Lake Como: Where to Go and How to Get There

What You Absolutely Have To Eat in Autumn in Italy