Italy is officially a Roman Catholic nation, where tradition is taken very seriously. We recite the rosary, put ashes on our foreheads, and eat wafers at church as part and parcel of what it means to be a good Catholic. But before the weeks of spiritual reflection begin, there is a season of decadent frivolity we call Carnevale. It’s similar to the celebration in Rio de Janeiro called Carnaval, and that of New Orleans called Mardi Gras.
A time-honored festival that is celebrated in countless squares and streets in Italy, animated with costumes, parades, floats and bonfires, it finds its roots in ancient Latin and Greek pagan rituals. Examples include the Roman Saturnalia and Dionysian cults of ancient Greece, in which the changing of seasons from winter to spring was celebrated with banquets, bacchanals and wild orgies. This may be where Italians earned their incipient resplendent repute for being good lovers.
The word Carnevale comes from the Latin for meat (carne) and “fare well” (vale), because during lent, Catholics bade fare thee well to lots of fun things like meat or sex. In a way, it was helpful, because it reduced the likelihood of newborns having to endure the bitterly cold winter some 9 months hence. It also gave men a legitimate reason to go fishing.
Carnevale is the last chance to party before Lent begins. Unequivocally one of the most important and most famous Carnevale celebrations is the one held in Venice, known the world over. The ten days of Carnevale di Venezia attempt to recreate the opulence of the 1700’s, when Venice was still its own republic. The array of elaborate masks of merry-makers and the mists arising from the lagoon of this romantic city is irresistible to the exuberant celebrants and waves of camera-laden tourists who flock to party throughout the city’s maze of canals.
Caricatures, satirical representations of the elite and powerful, all perched on stunning floats are featured at the historical Carnevale in Viareggio, which has been held in the seaside Tuscan town since the late 1800s. Every year its witty villagers produce hysterically funny and often tawdry floats, some of which require a full twelve months of hard work to build and are complex animated papier-mâché constructions, which can weigh several tons. Were Viareggio in America, we’d see floats depicting Michael Phelps on a cereal box of “weedies,” Rod Blagojevich selling seats of various designs, the octuplet mom dressed in “Janet Jackson” couture, exposing eight papillae (leading an army of kids all begging to nurse therefrom), and certainly a lewd and tacky pun on “stimulus package.”
One of our homes on the Italian Riviera is in Varazze, not far from the beautiful city of San Remo. San Remo is synonymous with flowers, which bloom year round. Blessed with a Mediterranean climate like southern California, the city holds its own version of the Rose Bowl Parade during Carnevale. The sweet perfume of carnations permeate the entire city as giant carriages carrying millions of flowers grace cobblestone streets.
The radiant bloom of Swede success: Alfred Nobel lived in San Remo during the last years of his life where he got the inspiration for his world-famous Prizes. The Swedish scientist found peace of mind in this beautiful Riviera after reading his own (premature) obituary erroneously published in a French newspaper eight years before his death. The famous inventor of dynamite blew up when he read the nasty remarks which dubbed him “The Merchant of Death.” He decided to re-write history while he still had the chance. The generous beauty of San Remo inspired his largesse of 31 million Swedish crowns bestowed to a foundation which honored peace makers and scientific discoveries.
So taken by San Remo’s beauty, Tsaress Maria Alexandrovna started the fashion of Russian aristocracy spending their winters in the sunnier climes of the Italian Riviera, because enduring arctic winters in St. Petersburg was too much Russian roulette. Once, in 1872, Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras. A group of businessmen organized the Krewe of Rex to hold a parade in His Majesty’s honor, and named a king and queen for the day, a tradition which continues today. They also used the colors of the Royal House of Romanoff: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. These have remained the official colors of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr.is co-founder of the Krewe of Orpheus, and is returning to “The Big Easy” to celebrate Carnival 2009 with his family and friends. Connick will ride in the Orpheus parade on Monday night, and attend the glitzy bal masqué that follows. Also gracing the Orpheus festivities this year are Jim Belushi from “According to Jim,” wicked comedienne Joan Rivers, country superstar Josh Gracin and the outrageous cast of Comedy Central’s “Reno 911.”
Speaking of outrageous, let us not forget the Brazilian celebration called Carnaval. Portuguese immigrants first celebrated Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1800s with a novel game called entrudo, during which poor people sprayed each other with mud and raw sewage, while the elite used perfume sprays. There were no middle class, which is good, because dung and perfume don’t mix well. The denizens of Rio held their first masked ball in 1840, and their first street parades a few years later. These celebrations evolved into a vast spectacle of lavish floats featuring stacks of pulchritudinous girls gone wild. There’s no place for party poopers in Rio these days. Scantily clad costumed dancers dance for hours in the 90 degree-plus summer-time heat where it’s too tempting to throw off all unnecessary clothing. If it appears the Carnaval Emperor’s new clothes are missing, you’re probably right.
The Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago boasts one of the world’s grandest Carnival celebrations, dating back to the landing of French growers in the late 1700s. Today, the Carnival festivity begins just after Christmas and reaches climax on Carnival Tuesday. The celebrations feature an endless supply of calypso music, where Trinidad’s distinctive steel bands drum up excitement day and night.
Two years ago I was fortunate enough to celebrate Carnival Tuesday in the beautiful Caribbean island of St. Martin. They like Carnival so much there they hold it twice! The first, on the French side takes place prior to Lent, keeping the tradition of the French Creole Mas, while the second is celebrated on the Dutch side over a period of 17 days and nights, with its grand parade scheduled to coincide with the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands, Beatrix. The finale for Carnival on St. Martin is the burning of King Momo, a straw figure who is the anthropomorphistic spirit of Carnival. Legend states that by burning King Momo, the villagers’ sins and bad luck are burned away, leaving the island pure and filled with hope for great things to come.
I bought a few straw King Momo souvenirs just in case I needed them one day to work some magic. Since then, the value of investments in my IRA plummeted 26 percent. I know why, though, I forgot to burn the King Momos. Would somebody kindly lend me a heavy-duty blow torch?