Saturday evening. An icy wind cuts through the square. The crowd murmurs and sways – a sea of bodies, shoulder to shoulder. Grandparents and adults with young children lift them high to give them a better view. Teenagers gather in packs, clandestine bottles of alcohol in backpacks and cola bottles. Older adults linger in chatting groups. As 9 o’clock approaches, a names sweeps through the crowd. First one, then many begin to chant, “Laura, Laura, Laura!” Every eye is on the municipal balcony facing the square. The door opens and the crowd roars in delight as a young woman dressed in a white dress with a green sash and a red head covering steps out. This is Ivrea carnival. She is the Mugnaia, the miller’s daughter, for this year’s carnival and her identity is only now being revealed to the townspeople.
For a little less than a week, the town embraces its medieval past as historical figures parade the streets in impressive processions and fiercely competitive teams wage a three-day orange battle between the “rabble” on foot in every square and the “Duke’s supporters” in horse-drawn carts. The battle symbolises an uprising against a tyrant duke who attempted to claim the right of ius primae noctis from a certain miller’s daughter, Violetta. She succeeded in getting him drunk and then cut off his head, displaying it to the populace and thus starting the uprising.
Having welcomed the Mugnaia, we move down to the road next to the river so that we can watch the procession and the fireworks. There’s a lull while we wait in the icy wind and chat to other spectators, then a thrill moves through the crowd as we hear the drummers and the pipers approaching. Behind them, the Generale and other personages astride prancing horses, splendid in their uniforms. Then comes Violetta, beautiful and smiling in her carriage, gaily throwing sweets and carnations to the adoring crowd. The orange-throwing teams follow her, and at some point, fireworks are lit across the river. An explosion of colour and carnival joy fills the sky. Tomorrow is the first of the orange battles and finally, a weary crowd of spectators and participants wends its way home to bed.
We’re back in the square. It’s 2 pm and the battle is about to start. If you come to watch the battle, come early and find a good spot. Wear old clothes and your oldest shoes. You’re going to be covered in orange juice by the end of the day. We find a spot under the portico where we’re elevated and have a splendid view. The square is full of kids, teens, young adults and some not-so-young. Music blasts from the speakers nearby as the children warm up by throwing oranges at each other. Each team has a uniform, and anyone can participate if they pay their dues and buy a uniform. Suddenly we hear bells jangling and the team leader starts shouting encouragement as the first cart pulls into the square. As it rounds the corner, a hail of oranges pelts the foot soldiers, but they fight back valiantly, often hitting the masked men in the cart. The horses are amazing – calm and sure-footed and completely unworried by the battle raging around them. It must be said that there are strict rules, and oranges may not be thrown towards the horses or once the cart leaves the square. Each team of horses has a man at its head, leading and calming them. There’s a short lull, then the next cart enters the square. The battle rages again, and so it goes until 5 o’clock when battle weary participants retreat to bars and houses to celebrate and discuss the day’s events. The town streets are slippery with crushed oranges and horse manure, creating a very unique carnival smell, but by tomorrow they’ll be quite clean again, in time for the next battle. At the end of the third day, the best teams on foot and in the carts are recognised for their spirit, technique and loyalty, an honour coveted by all.
If you ever visit the Ivrea carnival, don’t forget to attend some of the most evocative and emotive moments of this unique celebration. The burning of the scarli is the closing ceremony of the carnival.
The scarlo is a tall cylindrical arrangement of sticks, and there is one in each of the main squares of the town – five in total. The carnival characters proceed on horseback from one to the other, followed by a crowd of residents and spectators wearing the regulation red hat. Each scarlo is lit by the child personage for that suburb, the Abbà. In the main town square, the General waits for the Mugnaia to give the signal. She raises her sword towards the sky and he gallops towards the scarlo, followed by the Abba, who is lifted off the horse to set light to the scarlo. A shout rises from the sea of red hats as the fire reflects their faces and the immobile Mugnaia, sword piercing the sky. The flames quickly reach the flag at the top and once that is burnt, she tosses the flowers from her carriage into the crowd, one by one.
The final scarlo to be burnt is in one of the oldest suburbs of the town and once that has burnt, the procession returns to the centre on foot. Silence descends on the crowd as the pipers and drummers play a funeral march. The streets echo with the pipes, drumming and footsteps as slowly, the crowd makes its way to Piazza Ottinetti where the march of the General is played for the last time. The spectators greet each other with the traditional carnival greeting in Piedmontese dialect: Arvedse a giobia ‘n bot (Goodbye until one on Thursday) signifying their meeting again the following year.
Every carnival has its own special story and atmosphere, but Ivrea carnival reflects the unique history and fiercely independent spirit of the inhabitants of this area. Do you have a favourite carnival that you’ve attended? Tell us about it and leave a link in my comments.