In Italy, as in many other countries of Catholic tradition, February is the month when Carnival is celebrated.
The origins of this holiday are lost in the mists of time, even if we can find similarities with the Greek Dionysia or Roman Saturnalia ceremonies, during which was achieved a temporary dissolution of hierarchies and social obligations by any order overthrow, through joke and debauchery. The same goes for other popular Carnival, celebrated in Mesopotamian, from Indo-European peoples or other ancient civilizations where, in the same way, the celebrations had a purification value with the need for periodic regeneration. The Carnival led to a metaphysical dimension, signifying the movement of spirits between heaven, earth and hell and, therefore, pertaining to human being and his destiny. In spring, when the earth begins to manifest one’s energy, the Carnival represented a gap between the underworld and the earth inhabited by the living, the revival of the Cosmos from Chaos.
On this occasion, the masks just symbolize the souls of the dead and ancestors who visit the living in a time when there are no more borders between reality and netherworld. In fact, the word carnival comes from the Latin “carnem levare” (move meat out), as it originally pointed out to the banquet held on the last day of Carnival (Mardi Gras), immediately before Lent, period of abstinence and fasting (during which we don’t eat meat currently).
In several Carnival celebration, Shrove Tuesday is often represented by a bonfire, to symbolize the end or, rather, the “Carnival Death”, frequently represented by a puppet. For this reason, even if unconsciously, nowadays the celebration is dominated by playful and imaginative elements with public parades characterized by the use of masks, often with the use of floats that move across urban streets. In Italy there are many cities where the Carnival celebrations have long since become famous, even outside Italian borders, like the Carnival of Venice, Viareggio, Ivrea, Acireale and Sciacca, each with its own peculiarities. (In previous posts I mentioned Acireale and Sciacca Carnival).
In some cities, certain masks, which had popular and theatrical origins, have become the symbol of Carnival of that town. The best known are: Pulcinella (Punchinello), Naples mask representing a servant that temperamentally has embodied and continues to embody the Neapolitan-type, the character who, conscious of the problems, always manages to come up with a smile, making fun of the mighty publicly.
Pantalone (Pantaloon) is the mask of the city of Venice that represents a typical old merchant, greedy and lustful.
Arlecchino (Harlequin) is the mask of Bergamo, a character from the boorish spirit, sometimes witty but more often silly, just a poor devil as the servants of the traditional comedy ever since.
Balanzone is the mask of Bologna, which is the classic character “serious”, conceited and pundit who often indulges in long-winded speeches larded with quotations in Latin.
Gianduja is the mask of Turin, which is a cheerful and jovial character, embodying the stereotype of Turin”gentleman”, courageous, sober-minded, prone to good and faithful to his inseparable partner.
In many Italian countries it also is customary, during Carnival day, to dress their children (0 to 10 years, more or less) with fancy costumes and bring them into the street where, after a walk, go to a photographer store to get a photo.