Here’s a little guide about where to go for some truly unique Carnival celebrations in Italy beyond Venice and confetti.
February is Carnival season in Italy, with a host of colorful events taking place all over the country, from grandiose Venetian balls to colorful parades of masked characters in places like Viareggio, Cento, and Putignano. But you know me, I always like to dig a little deeper in search of utterly unique events off the tourist radar – the more bizarre, the better!
So here are 10 ancient Carnival festivals in Italy most of you probably never heard of before.
1. The mysterious Mamuthones and Issohadores of Mamoiada
Located right in the heart of Sardinia’s Barbagia region, the village of Mamoiada hosts unique Carnival celebrations that evoke ancient farming rituals where the protagonists are mysterious masks of men and animals. Animals are represented by Mamuthones, which hold huge bells on their back and are dressed up with dark sheep furs, dark wooden masks, a feminine handkerchief on their head. Issohadores, on the other hand, represent the guards and wear white trousers, red coats and black hats wrapped under the chin.
During the Carnival celebrations, Mamuthones and Issohadores parade through the village at a rhythmical pace, staging the perpetual struggle of men against nature. I can’t wait to fly to Sardinia next month and see all this for myself, I’m sure it will be an unforgettable experience!
When: Feb. 23-24-25 | website
2. Sartiglia, the equestrian tournament of Oristano
On the last Sunday and Tuesday of Carnival, the medieval town of Oristano, on the western coast of Sardinia, stages the Sartiglia, a sort of equestrian tournament with roots in the crusades. The Sartiglia started as an event to entertain nobles and commoners alike on specific occasions such as coronations, victories and royal visits, and today is one of the island’s main events.
Over a hundred characters take part in the Sartiglia, all beautifully dressed up with blank masks and traditional costumes. The main event is the thrilling horseback joust where masked knights have to hook the hanging stars onto their sword. Then when the festival is over, the number of stars collected during the tournament is seen as an indicator of how lucky and successful the year ahead will be.
When: Feb. 23-25 | website
3. The Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea
The Battle of the Oranges is surely one of the most unusual Carnival celebrations you’ll ever see in Italy. The event takes place in Ivrea, a small town about one hour north of Turin, and evokes the popular uprising against the local Marquis that happened in the Middle Ages.
The battle is played between teams on foot, representing the commoners, and squads of orange-throwers on horse-drawn carts, playing the role of the guards. Each team belongs to a specific town’s district. Oh, the oranges? Well, they represent arrows! I had the chance to see the Battle of the Oranges a couple of years ago and guys, it’s one of those one-of-a-kind traditions you have to see at least once!
READ MORE: “Carnival of Ivrea: the Battle of the Oranges”
When: Sunday, Feb. 23 | website
4. The “Colossale Fagiolata” of Santhià
Now, this is an interesting one. Literally translated as “massive bean soup”, the Colossale Fagiolata takes place in the Piedmontese town of Santhià and, as the name implies, beans are the protagonists here. The event occurs on the Monday before Fat Tuesday. The town wakes up at 5 am to set up 150 copper bowls in the central market square, where the fagiolata will be cooked using a recipe that is passed down from generation to generation. Then at midday, over 20,000 portions of this old peasants’ dish are distributed for free to locals and visitors. Celebrations will then continue with dances and parades through the night.
It is believed that this event originated centuries ago from the desire of peasants to defeat, at least for a day, the hunger they suffered under their oppressive rulers.
When: Feb. 24-25 | website
5. The Lachera of Rocca Grimalda
Lachera is an old ritual that has been taking place on the Piedmontese hills near Ovada since the early 1900s. It is a unique mixture of theatre and dance performance that celebrates the change of season with a colorful parade of masked characters. The protagonists are two young newlyweds that symbolize the arrival of a new life in spring. They are accompanied by a number of masked characters, including the Lachè (an old word for servant), the Campagnole (country girls) and the Bebè, who is a sort of comic parody of the Evil.
The parade marches from the town center to the countryside, where the characters go from farm to farm begging for food and wine. When the night falls, fires are lit in the courtyards and the parade ends with dances around a purifying bonfire. Tip for you: stay overnight and go wine tasting at the regional wine cellar of Ovada the next day, it’s only a 15 minutes’ drive away.
READ MORE: “Exploring the Langhe wine region in Piemonte”
When: Feb. 15-16 | website
6. Coumba Freida, the Napoleonic Carnival of Valle D’Aosta
Coumba Freida is one of the most intriguing Carnival celebrations in Italy, taking place in the villages around the Gran San Bernardo valley, in the mountain region of Valle d’Aosta. The name “Coumba Freida” literally means “cold valley” and refers to the cold winds that blow here. The event was born to commemorate the march of Napoleon and his troops through the Great St. Bernard Pass during his campaign in Italy in May 1800.
The characters wear white masks and precious red and blue costumes that remind the uniforms used by the Napoleonic troops. They dance through the streets and visit the local families of the hamlets and villages in the valley, offering propitiatory rites.
When: Feb. 8-9 | website
7. The Carnival of Bagolino, near Brescia
Bagolino is a small village near Brescia where Carnival is celebrated with music, dances, and costumes that date back to the 16th century. On Fat Monday and Tuesday, the Balarì – dancers and music players dressed up in traditional costumes and bright red hats – parade through the village while performing traditional dances and tunes.
These performances are considered a fine example of folk culture. Also, the Balarì are accompanied by the Maschèr (masks) that represent peasants and mock whoever they find on their way.
READ MORE: “A day trip to Brescia”
When: Feb. 24-25 | website
8. Gl’ Cierv, the man-deer ritual in Castelnuovo al Volturno
Carnival in the ancient hamlet of Castelnuovo al Volturno, in the region of Molise, is synonymous with ancient rituals and narratives and locals stage the so-called Gl’ Cierv rite, which is, simply put, the hunt for a man masked as a deer (called Gl’ Cierv). This is a frightful character that scares the village and is said to represent all the fears that are deeply rooted in the human soul, as well as the power of nature. The ritual also serves as a way to ward off the cold winter and welcome spring.
With a black-painted face, big horns and lots of cowbells around his chest, the man-deer arrives in the village right after sunset on the last Sunday of the Carnival, announced by the rhythmical tinkling of cowbells rung by witches with long hair. He’s then joined by the magician Martino and the Hunter, who come to the rescue of the village. In the end, the man-deer dies but is soon revived and released from the evil spirits.
READ MORE: “Molise does exist: 6 reasons to visit Italy’s most unexplored region”
When: Sunday, Feb. 23 | video
9. The night of the lanterns in Sauris
Sauris is a little mountain village in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia that hosts one of Italy’s oldest Carnival celebrations. The protagonists are the Rölar, a diabolic character with the face covered in sooth, and the Kheirar, the king of masks, who holds a big broom.
The event takes place on the Saturday before the Ash Wednesday when the masked characters gather in the main square and march through the village and the snowy woods following the light of lanterns and with a glass of mulled wine in hand. The final stop if the big closing bonfire.
When: Saturday, Feb. 22 | website
10. The horned masks of Aliano
In his famous book set right in Aliano, “Christ stopped at Eboli”, Italian writer Carlo Levi described the protagonists of the local Carnival as “maddened beasts, drunk with their own hue and cry animals”. Pretty scary, right? He was quite accurate, as the characters that parade through the streets of Aliano wear masks with horns that symbolize diabolical forces.
The masks are made by local artisans using paper maché and come completed with colorful hats. Tambourines and accordions accompany the show and of course, there are also lots of local delicacies involved!
READ MORE: “The ultimate coast to coast adventure in Basilicata”
When: 16 – 23 and 25 February 2020 | video
Have you ever attended any of these Carnival celebrations during your travels in Italy? Let me know in the comments below!
A super hug from Italy,
You’ve highlighted some very cool and unusual events I was unaware of. Seems strange that most include masks. I love the masks in the festival of Mamuthones and Issohadores of Mamoiada, although a bit scary. The man-deer ritual in Castelnuovo al Volturno sounds pretty unique too!
Thank you Vanessa. Can’t wait to share my experience of the Carnival in Mamoiada 🙂