Carnevale Viareggio, ITALY

The regional train rattled its way from Florence towards the coast. The atmosphere was ripe with anticipation – not the usual journey of somber faced commuters staring into the void, pretending not to notice one another. The monotonous drone of the caravan was punctuated with the sounds of strangers chatting and laughing playfully. The purpose of all this merriment? This was the journey that would land us in Viareggio, a usually sleepy seaside town on Italy’s western shore that comes to life once a year, transforming itself into a fantasy-land of high-spirited celebration for the annual Carnevale parade, a blow-out of extravagant proportions and a perfect antidote to the winter blues.

Lent, the 40 day period before Easter is a time to be abstemious, to give up some of the pleasures of life (I always deny myself liver and broccoli) but before all the abnegation there is CARNEVALE; a gorging on costumes, parades, drinking and revelry. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday but the day before is Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras or Carnevale. For the month of February and occasionally into March cities all over the world are celebrating Carnevale.


While the precise origins of Carnevale are unclear it is generally considered to be a celebration with ancient pagan roots, bacchanalian revelries, where participants wore masks or costumes so they couldn’t be identified and held accountable for their bad behavior. It usually entailed an element of mischief or lawlessness, giant street parties where normally respectable citizens could kick up their heels or even run amok with anonymity.

When our trainload of passengers spilled into the streets the party was already in full swing and rife with monkey-business. Anticipating a life without liver or broccoli we did what any impending ascetics would do, we sought out the best restaurant in Viareggio and went for lunch. It was packed with about 30 burly men dressed in spiffy red jump-suits with the words “tractor people” emblazoned on the back in white embroidery – the guys who drove the float-pulling tractors. It’s not hard to be noticed when you’re travelling with a blond bombshell, (my friend and photographer). Fortunately Italian men love women of all ages, shapes and sizes and they liked us! We left with 2 “tractor people” hats, some phone numbers, a few laughs and friends to wave at in the parade WooHoo!

As we stepped out into the sunlight the crowd was beginning to build. In addition to the roving bands of rascals and wags, permanent fixtures included the usual carnival accoutrements – Ferris wheels, rides, hot-dog stands and vendors selling crazy hats. The spirit was everywhere; people dressed as jesters and harlequins, bands of pirates, entire families of Dalmatians, pregnant nuns holding hands with politicians, the more outrageous the better. But the day is all about the parade. Parachutists landed on the beach in a cloud of lime green smoke, three big bangs and they were off!

viareggio.jpgThe town of Viareggio is perfectly suited for a parade. A long stretch of beach-side boulevard provides the consummate venue easily accommodating crowds of over 200,000 with unlimited views of the floats – massive behemoths of monstrous proportions towering above the crowds like creatures from a horror flick, multi-faceted with animated extensions, gizmos and whirligigs, some up to 4 stories high and weighing over 40 tons.

 I marvelled at their complexity and cleverness.


While Carnevale parades are celebrated the world over each seems to have developed its own unique and distinctive flavor, from the sexy samba parade of Rio de Janeiro to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi gras in Sydney Australia. The Viareggio parade is no exception. Her theme is political satire and acerbic commentary on world events, at times mocking so subtly as to be obscure at times brutally scathing and derisive. No fluffy stuf this! There is a saying in Viareggio “A Carnevale, ogni scherzo vale” – “all’s fair at Carnevale”. Nothing is sacred, no-one is spared. the themes of the floats skewer everyone, politicians, clerics and celebrities with equal impunity and many come to Viareggio to proudly admire their effigies.


Gradually the elaborate beasts made their way down the road, blaring music and packed with hundreds of enthusiastic costumed participants, singing and dancing, tossing confetti or blasting the crowd with sprays of silly string – no barriers, no crowd control, nothing to separate spectators from the action. Everyone is part of the parade milling around beneath the towering structures, flowing in and out like waves as the ocean liners pass through.

The floats have come a long way since the parade began in Viareggio in 1873 as a make work program for unemployed craftsmen from a failing shipbuilding industry. In the early 20′s they moved to lightweight papier mache and the floats rapidly grew in size and complexity to become a highly revered art form requiring enormous technical skill and creative imagination. The floats are now so vast they are able to tell a story and express complex social and moral themes as well as more subtle concepts such as human frailty, the destiny of mankind and hope for the future. Floats are named. “Usurped by the God of Money” highlighted the materialism of western culture, “Shall we get Married?” explored the hot topic of homosexual marriage with a double entendre regarding the cosy relationship between certain Italian and Spanish politicians while “I Throw Myself Away” tackles the issue of suicide.

puppet.jpgThe 15 floats are interspersed with 12 sets of “walking puppets” – 9′ giants attached to metal frames to a “walker”. These too explore themes, the most enchanting, a whimsical narcissistic group of characters lampooning vanity and a bunch of happy fruits reperesenting cheerfulness. If it sounds deep it is, but it’s all good-natured fun and presented in such a wacky, wonderful way as to transport the human spirit. The parade is simply a giant work of art.

arnaldo1-copy.jpgIt is easy to understand why the “floaticians”, the brilliant and imaginative master craftsmen who creat the floats are like rockstars in Italy. It is highly competitive with new floats constructed every year, work beginning as soon as the dust has settled on the parade route and conducted in great secrecy. Secrecy and rivalry began the moment the parade became a competition in the early 1900′s. Each year artisan wanna-be’s from all over Italy submit proposals but rarely are the floats ever awarded outside Viareggio. Each choosen submission is given a budget of 100,000 Euro to realize their dreams and significant prize money is awarded for the best floats. The great hero of Carnevale is undoubtedly Arnaldo Galli, who at the age of 84 has won 19 first prizes and was himself lampooned in the parade.

nice_workshop.jpgThe papier mach technique is simple but complicated by sheer size and complexity and requires vast hangers and towers of scaffolding. Sections of each are first modeled in clay, then coated with plaster which forms a negative mold and then a soggy mess of paper, flour and water glue is applied to the inside of the mold, dried and removed from the mold, then sanded, painted and varnished to spectacular effect.

Oblivious to all the hard work and intrigue, the happily sated crowd straggled back to the train station kicking up clouds of confetti as they passed. We piled back into the train and slumped into our seats, faces aglow with glitter, hair draped with silly string. No talking now just the quiet glow of contentment.

3 Responses

  1. uncle dooney Says:

    This all sounds amazing, here in LA we can’t organise a public parade to save our lives. Ok, maybe the Rose Bowl, but that is all corporate , I love the ” no barriers” aspect of it, hoi polloi and artists/ builders all in it together. When were you there? Uncle Dooney

  2. Pam Says:

    Wonderful!! I don’t usually like public parades, as they usually consist of marching bands, etc., but this one is like a moving piece of art. Would love to go!!!!

  3. albarosa Says:

    How good to read about my first country.
    Just back last night from Milan where already you can find all the delicious Carnevale sweets (frittelle and chiacchiere)piled up in every food store and patisserie.
    Carnevale is a big thing in Italy: Viareggio and Venice of course are the biggest celebrations but in every city, in every town we celebrate in different ways.
    Milan, being on a different liturgy and Calendar for religious matters created by Saint Ambrogio, bishop of Milan in the 4th Century and still our patron, celebrates Carnevale (the only city in Italy) almost a week later! when everyone is already in Quaresima…or Lent.
    Not many parades there but certainly much fun for kids (and adults too, who dress in costumes mostly for private parties.
    Great Post, Peg!

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