Carnival of Viareggio
By Enza Ferreri
What is Viareggio Carnival?
Viareggio Carnival (Viareggio Carnevale, or rather Carnevale di Viareggio) is one of the greatest and most important carnivals in Italy and in the world, along with Venice Carnival.
Viareggio Carnival is a 16-day period of fun during the Mardi Gras festivities. It takes place in February and March.
I must add here that Rick Steves, American great and informative travel writer about Italy, is rather imprecise on this point. On his site he writes:
Carnevale di Viareggio, Tuscany (about six somewhat sporadic days)
Viareggio Carnival dates are not “sporadic”. The word has a random connotation and means “occurring at irregular intervals or only in a few places”.
I was born in Viareggio and lived there for a long part of my life, and I can tell you that, bar exceptional times like during the Covid pandemic, there is a precise order in the Carnival main events (the float parades on seafront promenade) dates: they occur over 3 successive Sundays and the Tuesday after, which corresponds to Shrove Tuesday, end of Carnival period, which has a definite meaning in Catholic countries like Italy.
Carnival is a specific period of the year. Although “Carnival” in English does not have a time connotation and refers generally to any festival or revel, the English term derives from the Italian “Carnevale”. It means the period of fun, feasting and merrymaking just before the Lent starts with its 40 days of abstinence. Such period ends on Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday), the last day of Carnival, the day preceding Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Catholic calendar.
During Carnival many Italian cities and towns celebrate this time of fun in their own specific way, creating festivals each with its own local colour.
Like other renowned carnivals in Italy, notably the Venice Carnival, the Carnival of Viareggio is characterized by visual displays of high artistic level.
Every Viareggio-born person awaits with trepidation and excitement to hear the triple cannon shot that signals the beginning of the great emotion of the occasion. Fired from the sea shore, it marks every time the start of the floats parade.
The Carnival of Viareggio has a song specially created for it, which changes every year. One of my favourites is the 1982 Carnival song Un’onda scivola (A wave glides by), because it is a poetic evocation of the moments that preceed the start of the carnival parade, the joyous expectation while on the beach watching the movement of the sea and the play of the wind with coriandoli and children’s’ hair.
Artistic floats big and small that took a whole year to build, created by artists with the help of craftsmen, are then paraded on the seafront on traditionally four different dates, that have now become five: these parades are called “corsi mascherati”.
The floats are very colourful, full of humour and irony in the true Carnival spirit, often with a satirical intent: this is why they are called “carri allegorici”.
Various floats from Viareggio’s Carnival are pictured here: the one at the top is a float representing the world in a cage dominated by a gigantic six-armed demon, a symbol of the global economic system that is not working and makes people feel imprisoned; further down are photos of a float with a caricature of Nobel-laureate playwright Dario Fo; the one below that depicts a parody of the provocative singer Renato Zero.
The floats are huge, they are often taller than the buildings along the promenade. People who see them for the first time are usually impressed by their size, which was unexpected. But they are also beautiful and extremely complex. It takes about a year to make one of them. The creator is often a renowned local artist, a painter whose float carries his signature as if it were a painting or sculpture.
He is aided by a team of many craftsmen working with him in the big purpose-built hangars at the edge of the town. The material used is papier-mâché.
While it is paraded, circling on the seafront, the float is animated from within by several people who operate the mechanisms that make heads on the float turn, eyes roll, mouths open and smile, arms and legs raise, birds spread their wings, and every little detail come to life.
Each float has a band playing live music on it, along with groups of people dancing, waving and cheering, all in a fancy dress in harmony with the theme of the float, be it devils, clowns, fierce or pacific animals, Pierrots, Harlequins and other characters of Commedia dell’Arte, monsters, barbarians, political caricatures, comedy personas, singers, celebrities, even IT moguls like the creator of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg.
Dancers also precede and follow each float dressed and dancing in a style that evokes the subject of their float.
In addition to the floats, other smaller displays follow in a circle, as well as mascherate, i.e. lines of people wearing on their heads masks made of papier-mâché, and marching brass bands, one of which is Viareggio’s own band, La Libecciata (from “libeccio”, a warm Mediterranean wind blowing in Viareggio from the sea).
Besides the corsi mascherati, which take place on 3 successive Sundays during Carnival and on the day of Mardi Gras, the various areas and neighbourhoods of Viareggio organize local street parties, le feste rionali.
People wear masks, kids turn up in fancy dresses, and at night everybody dances in the streets and has a good time.
In Italy we have a saying: a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale, which means: “During the Carnival, anything goes”. Practical jokes are common and normal and must be accepted. There was a time, now gone, when “manganelli” (plastic truncheons) were used by guys to club passing girls on the head. It may have been done with good and humorous intentions, but it stll gave you a headache by the time you got home.
Thankfully manganelli have been out for many years now, but “coriandoli” and “stelle filanti” are still in use and they can be thrown at people without causing any problem. Stelle filanti are streamers. Coriandoli are what in English are called “confetti”, small pieces of paper of all colours thrown around for celebration at festive events. In Italy they are usually round.
There is a linguistic confusion here, because “confetti” in Italian are something completely different, namely sweets made of a colorful sugar-coated almond, offered at weddings, Christenings, and other sacraments like Confirmations. The English word, despite the different meaning it has taken in English, originated in the early 19th century from the Italian language.
And since we are talking about sweets, if you happen to go to Viareggio’s Carnival stop at one of the many street stalls (bancarelle) lining the parade and get croccanti and torroni, delicious and very, very sweet.
The triple cannon shot which started each main parade of floats and masks on the seafront also marks the end of it.
But the Carnival celebrations are not limited to parades, bands, floats, music, fancy dresses, parties in the street, parties in clubs, masks, and all the fun that goes with it. They also include many events of other types, ranging from cultural events like theatre, debates, conferences, book presentations and photography exhibitions to sport events.
The latter include tournaments in swimming, cycling, hockey, golf, karate, horse riding, duathlon, athletics competitions like marathon, parachute jumping on the float parades, motorbike rallies, and even an international competition of radio-controlled speedboat.
Another sport event is the Viareggio Cup, an international youth football tournament that in 2013 was at its 65th edition. And for the first time this year there has been the Torneo Coppa Carnevale di Rugby, in recognition of the growing importance that this sport is acquiring in Italy.
During Carnival, Viareggio becomes a bit like a mini Olympic city, with its own Carnival Village, a covered, fully-equipped 750-square-metres area hosting shows, entertainment, culture and other events.
The Carnival of Viareggio dates back a couple of centuries, but officially it started in the 1870s, and has been repeated every year since, looked forward to with great expectation by the locals.
In 2013, the 140th anniversary of Viareggio Carnival was celebrated with 5, rather than the usual 4, float parades.
Since then, the novelty of five Carnival float parades has always been maintained.
The parades are on the promenade along the sea.
If you want to follow audio-visual material about Carnival of Viareggio, explore the work and artistry of the float makers, Viareggio Carnival’s history and tradition, there is a series of new videos and TV shows on Carnival of Viareggio channel on:
I particularly like the 2021 float “Artemide: la natura si ribella” by Luigi Bonetti, whose title in English translates as “Artemis: Nature Rebels”. The idea of nature’s revolt against harm inflicted on her by humanity is good, and the way it is visually portrayed, a white Artemis holding a bow ready to shoot an arrow against a dark red demon about to attack her with an axe, is brilliant, beautiful and effective, but there is a problem: Artemis was the Greek goddess of hunting, as well as nature, so the message somehow “revolts” against itself…