Carnival of Viareggio, Carnevale di Viareggio
The Tuscan Carnival of Viareggio is famous for its gigantic allegorical floats all over the world. They are actually mobile theatres with music, actors, dancers, light and smoke effects. Their main theme is political and social satire.
Masked balls were organized in the city since long ago, as well as in other cities. The custom of preparing massive works of art for carnival was born only in 1873. After the unification of Italy, laws changed and taxes increased, and some young, wealthy middle-class men did not like it. They gathered at Caffè del Casinò and conceived a plan; they put on masks and went out into the streets to protest against the authorities and high fiscal pressure.
Unrecognized, they said what they wanted to say, and even had fun. And so by chance they started a new tradition. Since then, the carnival has become a moment when, in disguise and with irony and sarcasm, people had the possibility to vent anger, draw attention to social problems and to criticize the government.
Gradually, allegorical floats appeared; initially very heavy. At the end of the nineteenth century, the artists created triumphant giants of wood, jute and plaster mixed with glue, which were put together by carpenters and iron smiths.
The First World War seemed to destroy any will to have fun, but in 1921 the carnival returned with even more splendour. The parade took place on the sunlit promenade of the Versilia coast, with the snowy peaks of the Alps in the background. For the first time the song "Coppa di Champagne", the Cup of Champagne, was played, which is now the official anthem.
In 1925, cartapesta was introduced to make floats. Its lightness and ductility allowed the artists to build huge constructions which were easy to manipulate. The carnival was noticed by the international press who described the craftsmen as ,,papier-mâché wizards”.
This material is a mixture of paper pieces, water, glue and starch. The builder - "carrista" first creates a model of clay; after covering it with a layer of plaster he gets a negative of the future work. Then he fills its inside with strips of paper previously soaked in a mixture of water and glue and leaves it to dry thoroughly.
Consequently, he takes out the paper mass from the mould and, after polishing it with abrasive paper, he paints it with acrylic or tempera paints. Finally, he will coat a figure with a clear varnish for durability and protection.
Another revolution came in 1927: Pierrot's puppet was the first one to move head and eyes.
Carnival has its symbol called Burlamacco. It was created in 1931 by local painter Uberto Bonetti, who illustrated the official materials. It is a character, inspired by other well-known Italian masks (he has Pierrot´s pom pom and Arlecchino´s checkerboard costume), but his colours - red and white - should evoke the joy of summer and the typical umbrellas on the city beach.
After the Second World War, the Carnival of Viareggio definitely became one of the most important in Italy and the world, and its floats are the largest and most animated in the world. No wonder; as many carristas inherit their unique profession and its secrets from generation to generation. They are constantly inventing new and new ways to stun the audience. They cooperate with well-known artists to represent the given theme, which is always political and social satire, as best as possible. They laugh at ministers, TV stars, athletes and human nature. They will not miss any burning problem. Their carriages, twelve meters wide and over twenty meters tall, are simply recognized as works of art with a deeper meaning.
In 2001, the city opened a new multifunctional complex Cittadella del Carnevale (Carnival Citadel) dedicated to the creation and preservation of the festivity. The 16 hangars serve the carristas as workshops that can also be visited. In the museum, you will learn something about history and you can have a look and touch the statues from previous years.
The parades (daily or nightly) take place on five Sundays; I arrived in Pisa on Saturday morning. When I visited this city for the first time, the weather was not the best, and I wanted to see the world famous tower again. I found a strange phenomenon: with my camera, it is impossible to take a picture of the Leaning Tower as leaning! Only from a long distance; otherwise the round lens would make it rounder… in one picture instead of being tilted to the left (and it is really tilted enough!), it appears leaning to the right! Well, I have a world rarity!! :)
It took only twenty minutes by train to Viareggio. Knowing its reputation, I was somehow expecting a larger city, so I was surprised that it has just over 60,000 inhabitants.
Right in front of the station I was greeted by a statue of laughing sun and the information poster. The houses were decorated with flags, masks and old puppets; through loudspeakers music was transmitted to the streets. On the square near my hotel, there were market stands, selling mainly things for carnival, but also some goodies.
The centre is tiny but charming; a nice promenade along the seaside is lined with beautiful, often ornately styled Art Nouveau houses. It is full of shops, restaurants and bars. One of the waterfront attractions is the statue of Burlamacco, smiling clown in red-and-white cape. The monumental hills of the snow-capped Alps in the background looked like a fata morgana.
On the Burlamacca Canal; which runs from the inland to the sea, fishermen sold fresh catches or seafood dishes directly from their boats. I could smell the delicious aroma flying around like a long scarf. I didn ́t resist it and joined the queue…
It was so warm that people were napping on the benches, and since my eyes were already closing too, I went for coffee. I was attracted by the Fappani sweet shop that offered not only a variety of cakes, but also healthy (and photogenic) drinks - pink, pale blue, yellow and green (with curcuma, matcha tea ...). Good idea! I chose pink milk and the typical carnival sweetness, fried pastries chiacchiere - (literal translation: “gossip”). The name implies the speed and ease of their preparation, you need just water, flour and sugar; and they are ready in a moment - just like gossip. :)
On Sunday morning I tried for breakfast another specialty, rice fritters with cream (fritelle di riso). Yummy! Then I went to the sea. All the access streets were closed now; the promenade could only be accessed through special entrances.
In the stalls along the road they offered "first aid" to those who didn't have masks (headbands with ears, hats, wigs), but also to the unfortunates who didn't get a table in a restaurant. Bars and pizzerias were bursting at the seams. I read that each parade is watched by about two hundred thousand people, and it looked like all two hundred thousand would like to have lunch at a beachside restaurant. In vain, they had to make do with fast (but excellent) food from the food trucks.
At noon, allegorical floats arrived at the promenade and parked in their starting positions. Everyone could have a good look at them, touch them and take a picture with them. Such immobile and sometimes "unfolded" did not seem much larger to me than those of Nice. But, as it turned out later, some were hiding surprises...
At 3 pm, after the usual three cannon shots, the parade took the road. It could not have more spectacular scenery; just imagine a beautiful blue sky, sea and whitish mountains in the distance. The carriages were beautifully colourful and really, really gigantic!
The reason why they were especially impressive was that actually, they were traveling theatres. Each float carried actors or dancers in fantastic costumes who helped to create the atmosphere of its theme; some were also in front, some in the back. Each one had its own musical soundtrack; each one was accentuated by smoke, fire and light effects. Many things and parts moved in an incredible way. Although the official topic was ``Women'', it was more about nature in danger, hunger, politics and other current problems. So much sadness... Each carriage left a deep impression on the audience.
I liked the most the Last Snow White (Ultima Biancaneve). On the slowly approaching car, a woman with ivy hair was sitting, her body dressed in leaves. She was turning her head and winking, even a butterfly in her hair was flapping its wings ... I understood that it was Mother Nature. She sat in the middle of the garbage, surrounded by plastic bags and leaning against a black plastic rock. Nothing special yet; right?
But suddenly, the rock began to rise! And it wasn't a rock, but a tall, disgusting witch with a gas mask on her face and an apple in her hand! She towered over Mother Nature, leaning once to one side, then to the other; that round bottom of the gas mask dangled back and forth ... until poisoned Snow White - Nature dropped dead. Then the witch ́s mask slowly retracted under the headscarf (as far as technically possible, of course) and revealed a nasty face. Old hag opened her mouth with a single tooth, and laughed with the most fearsome, malicious laugh ,,Muahaha”...
The float called The Herd (Il branco), dedicated to the fight against school bullying, looked harmless while immobile; but when the "performance" started, I broke out in a cold sweat. Something like a white book wrapped in steam was coming.
At horrific music, a huge hyena suddenly stuck out of it. He wrinkled his nose, showed his teeth like a real animal (they copied it perfectly) and turning his head, looked at the viewers on the right and on the left as if wondering who he was going to throw himself on. More smoke, flow of sparks ... and then two more terrible heads slowly began to pop out of the book! The animal remembered a three-headed dog Fluffy from Harry Potter's books. And in the evening his eyes were shining!
Other mobile stages were also impressive. Crying whale with a body covered with plastics. Drowning migrants. Feminist Frida Kahlo, who made the enthusiastic audience dance and who from time to time screamed Adelante! and pointed forward. The Moon dream - Donald Trump depicted as a baby with a happy smile, floating over the rotating pillows ... but also Donald Trump as the Star Wars Emperor. While they played the same monumental music as Sheldon when he wanted to destroy the world, the colossus with the combover threateningly moved above our heads...
A few smaller characters made fun of the local problems. For example, the scene ,,Let us give a cut”: politicians masked as patulous trees represented those who were in power for too long, while the gardeners with large scissors behind them impersonated new, relatively popular ministers Di Maio and Salvini. The sad fate of university students who are unable to find a job and are forced to leave Italy was represented by a bird called Volare (Fly): he had diplomas in his bag and singing a well-known hit, flew abroad...
Every float or statue made us seriously think about some problems. The parade in Viareggio is worth seeing at least once in life, it was a great experience - and politicians should be obliged to watch it every year.
The atmosphere was very calm and pleasant, maybe because there are five parades (with the same carriages). Besides, the sculptures moved so slowly that there was time to go for coffee or ice cream and you didn't miss anything. Masks were not mandatory, only a few people and children had them - those also threw in the air so much confetti that the roads looked like snowy.
By the way, did you know that confetti (coriandoli) is also an Italian invention? At the end of the 19th century, they were invented by two engineers and replaced previously used gypsum balls and coriander seeds covered with sugar.
When it got dark, the cars turned on the lights and added effects. Witch's eyes shone lit and Fluffy ranted and raged at everybody! The parade lasted until 7.30 pm; the works of art run in a closed circle along the promenade and ended up exactly where they began.
In the evening, volunteer associations organised the rioni (night-lifing) in some parts of the city (Q.re Campo D'aviazione, Torre del Lago, Marco Polo, Darsena and Croce Verde). I went to see the one in the Marco Polo district.
On the square in front of the church, there were several stands, offering cheap food and cheap wine (all delicious). It is rather an event for the locals, who came to eat, chat with friends and later maybe dance...
P.S. After the last parade, the jury proclaimed and awarded the winner, this year it was the Last Snow White.