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Saturnalia for the Romans included long and complex rites dedicated to sowing. Banquets, exchanges of presents, and sweets characterized these celebrations, which included servants acting as their masters, and a slaves being crowned as kings. Lupercalia marked the end of the Roman year and was celebrated with dancing and singing in the streets. Historians believe that these celebrations influenced Carnival.
Masks during the Roman Carnival
Engraving by B. Pinelli, circa 1830.
For centuries, Rome was the headquarters of Carnival. Many popes have been great supporters of the public celebrations, the horse rides, the exhibitions, and the parades. During the Renaissance, the festivities, sponsored by the Pope and the noble Roman families, acquired political prominence. Thousands of people would travel from all over Europe to attend. The Palio was a famous horse race without jockeys, taking place along the Via del Corso. The race became a competition for the best horses. The victory would culminate in a large public banquet and food distribution. The Palio was abolished in 1884 after an accident occurred in front of Queen Margherita.
Carnival has very ancient origins. It is believed to have originated in Roman times when Saturnalia, the Saturn festival, and Lupercalia, the feast of the full moon, were celebrated.
Traditional in Roman Catholic countries, Carnival is not celebrated or even known in many countries of other faiths. The Carnival Season is a holiday period during the two weeks before the traditional Christian Lent, when the rigors of 40 days of fasting and sacrifice begin. In fact, the origin of the word “Carnival” comes from the Latin “carne-levare,” literally "to remove the meat" or "stop eating meat." The celebration of Carnival ends on Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday").
The city was occupied by Napoleon in 1797, and this actually ended the Repubblica Serenissima, “The Most Serene Republic.” After Venice became part of the Austrian Empire, the celebration of Carnival was halted and restarted only in the 1970s. Today, Venetians have reinvented the ancient masks and costumes in a style that melts together the dress styles from the Middle Ages through the 1700s. The result is splendid precious elegant dresses in silk, gold, silver, and lace, wigs, and since the masks cover people’s faces, everybody can feel free to dance and sing in public without being recognized.
Horse Race during the Roman Carnival
Engraving by B. Pinelli, circa 1830.
The carnival of Venice was first recorded in 1268. It was unruly, with parades and Pamplona style bull chasing games. The use of masks to cover faces made it even more transgressive, and the Mascareri, the mask-makers had a special position in Venice. Everyone could wear a mask during the carnival without the barriers of gender and social status.
What is Carnival after all, other than excess and the transgression before the sacrifice? And the practiced and desired transgression was of course related to the abundance of food. The gastronomy of Carnival rich in fats and sweets. Traditional dishes in most regions of Italy include gnocchi, lasagna and tortelli.
Nowadays, many traditions have vanished or changed, but fried pastries are still common in Fat Tuesday cookery. Spoonfuls of dough fried in oil take the shape of small balls in Frittelle or Castagnole.
However, the most famous carnival fritters are ribbons of sweet pasta fried and covered with sugar or honey. These fritters are familiar all over Italy, where they assume many different names—including Frappe, Frappole, Sfrappole, Flappe in central Italy, Cenci (“tatters”) or Donzelli (“young ladies”) in Tuscany, Crostoli (“crusts”) or Galani in Veneto, Lattughe (“lettuce”) in Romagna, Nastri delle Suore (“ribbons of the nuns”) in Emilia, Bugie (“lies”) in Piemonte, and Gigi in Sicily. Is there another dish with so many names?
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