Milano is a unique city in Italy, which makes for an exceptional Carnevale celebration.
The Italian Carnevale has roots in Saturnalia, the riotous Pagan Roman festival of lights. This was celebrated for about a week around longest night, our present-day Christmas time. Celebrants would use the last of the good things of the harvest, the meats and fruits, the wines and spirits, for a week of feasts and festivities designed to insulate body and mind against the chills of colder months to come. It is thought the etymology of Carnevale is ‘Carnem Levare’ (to use up the meat) these ancient words being used to describe the banquet which has moved over time and become linked to the Christian calendar.
Now the Carnevale is celebrated up to and before Shrove Tuesday, Martedi Grasso in Italian, (literally ‘Fat Tuesday’), and represents the feasting, singing and dancing which must be renounced during the following forty days of Lent. However, the canny Milanese traditionally keep on partying until the following Saturday – this year the 21st of February. This is because we are following the edicts of our patron, Saint Ambrogio, who, back in the fourth century AD, was away on a pilgrimage, and begged his followers to wait until his return to celebrate, according to one local legend.
But despite their religious significance, the festivities still echo their wild-spirited origins. Carnevale is an excuse for Italians in every city to put on a mask, assume a character and throw caution to the wind – if only for a few hours. The masks and costumes (maschere) of the Carnevale date back to the days of the Commedia dell’Arte, who were travelling theatrical players back in the 1500s. The players would improvise a show around predetermined themes, often romantic, always entertaining and funny. As the characters were masked they had to use their bodies to emphasis the emotions of the scene so leaps, tumbles, jumps and slapstick routines were stock-in-trade to these players.
The actors over time developed costumes and caricatures of social types, such as foolish old men, wily young servants and puffed-up ‘brave’ soldiers. They also personified and satirized different regional characteristics, such as the Dottor Graziano figure, a pedant from Bologna, or Pantalone, the miserly merchant from Venice. They became very popular in the theatres and music halls of the 18th century and the most famous of all has to be the Harlequin, who originated in Bergamo. His brightly coloured costume is made up of patchwork because the family was so poor his mother had to make him a suit with left over scrap cloths. Pulcinella is another name you may recognize. He is the lazy, sneaky servant from Naples, with a baggy white shirt and trousers, long hooked nose, wrinkled forehead, known for exaggerated gesticulation and exuberant dancing whenever he manages to convince somebody he is rich, poor, innocent – or whatever else his current rouse requires. His name has become a shorthand way of describing anyone spontaneous and feisty and sadly, most unreliable.
The main character of the Ambrosian carnival is called Meneghino, a contraction of the moniker Domeneghino. The domeneghini date back to the 1700s and were servants employed by Milanese nobility who had seen better days. Being short of money these families would hire servants on a day-to-day basis, usually on a Sunday (Domenica) to make a show of helping the families to church and back.
Meneghino is one of the few maschera of the carnival to wear no mask at all, reflecting his authenticity and honesty. Instead he wears a distinctive outfit made up of a long velvet jacket, a white ruffled shirt and knee-length breeches over red and white stripy socks. He wears a red-brimmed three-cornered hat atop a pony-tailed wig to round the look off. He is like the traditional ‘fools’ of classic literature: the servant who is wiser than the men he serves, known in local folklore for poking knowing fun at the ruling classes.
Over the years, the mythology of Meneghino grew to include him meeting and marrying Cecca di Birlinghitt. This means something like ‘Francesca of the Frills’, the perfect wife for an early Milanese entrepreneur. During the 1848 Milanese war of independence against the Austrians, the five-day war or the Cinque Giornate di Milano, Meneghino and Cecca became more symbolic of Milan. They began to represent local heroism, hard work and faultless generosity, all admirable qualities the Milanese could fight for and believe in.
Taking place over three days here in Milan, there will be costume parades with music and dancing through many streets of the town, culminating in the central party in Piazza del Duomo in the evening of Saturday 21st – affectionately known here as Sabato Grasso (‘Fat Saturday’) . If you are not particularly handy with a needle, there are several tailor shops that rent any type of costume with various accessories, so you’ll be sure to fit right in.
“A carnevale ogni scherzo vale” (‘At Carnival, every prank goes’).