Only a month to go … I can’t wait! Only a month and finally it will be Carnival!!! The festival that I look forward to the most … yes, yes much more than Christmas. Carnival is fun, it is the changing of patterns and the relaxing of rules and is perhaps the most traditional of the festivals here in Piedmont. I cannot wait to pass on this tradition to my little one: this will be his first Carnival and he will get to experience traditions that have been handed down for almost a thousand years.
In fact, it dates back to 1093, according to a document dated 1893, the constitution of the Ancient Society of Fagiuolesca (beans) which together with the Abadia association (early 1300s) has always been involved in the organization of the Historic Carnival of Santhià (municipality of Vercelli with just over 8 thousand inhabitants). Why to organize the carnival there is a society of Fagiuolesca? Here is the element that links all the carnivals of Piedmont to our territory and to our particular traditions. Since the Carnival was born as “carne levare” or as a last big party in which to consume meat, before the abstention of Lent (Italy being a country where the calendar has always been marked by Catholic holidays) and as a carnival granted to the people a little revenge, in the temporary overthrow of the order or in making small, irreverent jokes towards the powerful and their rules, it was also permitted to organize a large collective meal. The fat beans, or “faseuj grass” in our dialect, are really the typical dish of the Carnival in the area of Canavese and of course, by contamination, in the neighbouring areas. The traditional recipe, which varies slightly from town to town, requires the beans to be cooked slowly over high heat in large copper pots, the “caudere“. Not only the recipe but also the preparation is all linked to tradition and must follow a precise procedure.
In my little town of around a thousand inhabitants, those tasked with the carnival beans were the “Coscritti“, that is, all the young people of the town who in that year would have turned 19, called for the occasion “Fasulat“. The party began on Saturday evening, the fires, “fugun,” were lit in a large open space, and they all ate sweets and drank together: the party was open to everyone. The cooking of the beans, flavoured with laurel and some spices and enriched with pork legs and rind, lasted throughout the night and it was a party just to watch the cooking and stir the beans from time to time; the next morning the beans were distributed free to the entire population of the town.
In Santhià, on the other hand, the tradition sees the Ancient Society of Fagiuolesca organizing the “Colossale Fagiuolata”, which is the largest in Italy. Obviously the carnival of Santhià, awarded in 2015 the medal of the President of the Republic as an award for cultural representation, is not only about the beans but also the pipes and drums, the games of Gianduja, the night parade and the palacarvé (dancing hall): lots and lots of fun.
If we move ourselves a few kilometres, on the same Sunday of Carnival also begins the Battaglia delle Arance (Battle of the Oranges): a very special and particular historical interpretation by the Historic Carnival of Ivrea, that is unique in the world.
The Battle of the Oranges is a historical reconstruction intertwined with the legend of a popular uprising in the Middle Ages. It was the very powerful Marquis of Monferrato, the lord of this area that imposed heavy taxes on the land and the rule of jus primae noctis, according to which every new bride on her wedding night had to give herself first to the baron before her new husband. It was Violetta, daughter of a miller, the heroine of this legend (it seems however that the jus primae noctis is a myth – see here): that on the evening of her wedding went up to the castle, according to the law of jus primae noctis, but instead of indulging to the baron, she cut off his head and showed it as a trophy to the population; this was the gesture that triggered the popular uprising against the tyrant and his abuses of power.
Today the protagonist of the carnival is known as Vezzosa Mugnaia, who on Saturday evening is presented to the population, from the balcony of the City Hall, and the crowded square applauds her.
The day after at 2.00 pm the Battle of the Oranges begins, that is the reenactment of the real revolt of the people against the tyrant, in which the oranges take the place of the stones thrown by the rebels. For three consecutive afternoons, the orange-throwers give life to a spectacular representation, unique and engaging, in which the squads, representing the people in revolt, stand awaiting in their respective squares the passage of the pariglie (wagons pulled by 2 horses) and the quadriglie ( wagons pulled by 4 horses) with the orange-throwers on the wagons protected by leather helmets, representing the tyrant’s troops. Opening the parade is the Vezzosa Mugnaia wagon accompanied by the General Staff: here the historical Carnival refers instead to the Napoleonic era, when for the carnival period, a General took command of the city, assisted by his General Staff, and he was responsible for the maintenance of the city order during the festivities.
The moment of the throwing of the oranges is spectacular and exhilarating; the square becomes an endless swarm of oranges and the orange-throwers challenging each other with their daring feats. Obviously, the focus is truly the scenic aspect and it is absolutely not violent, so much so that in the squads of orange-throwers there often participate children, dressed from head to toe in traditional costumes. The representation is so alive and engaging that you will find yourself cheering for one faction or another and you will not be able to wait for the next wagon to come.
The squares that I have always found the most beautiful from which to witness the battle from are: the Piazza Ottinetti, very spacious, well protected by nets, where there is the opportunity to spectate without running any risk and maybe even enjoy a glass of vin brulé (mulled wine) at the same time, or when I want to be more adventurous and absorb a little more adrenaline, the Piazza dei Tuchini, which being smaller, makes you watch the battle from up close, so as to be almost protagonists yourself (always in the spirit of the fun and games, nothing violent).
Throughout the city, there are safe-zones protected by very high metal nets that serve to separate the “battlefield” from the public and at the same time, the public is invited to wear the red cap (a symbol of freedom from the Roman times and then reused by the French Revolution) to indicate solidarity with the insurgent people. Those who do not wear anything red may be co-opted into the battle, as they are not exhibiting solidarity. Obviously, it is only symbolic, as the orange-throwers know well where and at whom to throw, but it is an expedient to involve and make participate the public in the historical reconstruction.
In short, the Battle of the Oranges is one of those things that must be tried at least once in a lifetime, it is something I’m very proud of, from Piedmont and I can assure you that as for us Piedmontese, we know how to have fun and entertain!
In fact, for all those who are never satisfied, that want “just one more”, at Chivasso we have the Carnevalone (big carnival), held on the first Sunday of Lent. The idea, like all traditional things, is a bit casual. In 1951 on the Sunday of Carnival, it rained so much that the traditional parade could not take place and thus it was moved to the following week. Given the enormous success of this edition outside of the normal Carnival period (evidently there are lots of us that want “just one more”), the people of Chivasso decided to move their carnival permanently to the first Sunday of Lent and that for them it would not just be a normal carnival but a “CarnevalONE” (BIG carnival). And still today the Carnevalone is beautiful, well-attended, and it has always been for us children that certainty that the Carnival was not really finished on Shrove Tuesday, that there would still be another Sunday full of Carnival!