~ Curious And Unusual ~
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Rome's Carnival

memories of a bygone tradition

Up to the late 19th century, Rome's Carnival used to be one of the most important happenings in Italy. Although this custom died out over one century ago, it still represents an important memory among the city's old folk traditions. It consisted of a huge public festival that lasted eight days, and ended on the night of Mardi Gras, with the beginning of Lent. The celebrations actually started eleven days earlier, i.e. on Saturday, but since races and fancy costumes were forbidden on Fridays and Sundays, the Carnival days were only eight all together, according to the following schedule:


The use of holding fancy events before Lent began during the 10th century, although in those days the festival consisted of games and tournaments, which only later turned into street celebrations. It soon became one of the most awaited events of the year, which also people from other places came to Rome to enjoy. During the Renaissance, the fame of Rome's Carnival was even greater than that of the renowned Carnival of Venice!

The importance of this festival for Roman people was enhanced by the fact that only during this short period some austere laws concerning public order, mainly based on religious principles, could be broken. The police was strict in having them observed during the rest of the year, particularly during the forthcoming Lent, when even theatre plays were forbidden not to disturb the Easter spirit.
Therefore, during Carnival the people could take some liberties, also towards the ruling classes (the clergy and the aristocracy), for which in other periods of the year they could have been arrested, or worse. And despite Carnival too had its own laws and rules, it was not unlikely to indulge in excesses of all kinds (food, wine, sex, violence), which caused several people, not only of the low class, to die or to fall ill. During the pontificate of many popes, but particularly under Sixtus V, Carnival was a time in which the executioner was given extra work.

a scene of Rome's Carnival, from a watercolour by Achille Pinelli (c.1835)

However, the celebrations did not take place by default; every year the people awaited a specific edict by the pope, which gave permission to hold the festival. Usually, during the Jubilees (or Holy Years) the whole program was cancelled, and no theatre plays nor balls nor any other fancy event took place in any part of the year, replaced by a large number of religious celebrations, processions, and so on. Also the death of a pope could cause the Carnival to be cancelled; for instance when Leo XII passed away, in 1829, no celebration at all was held.

Moreover, during these days many popes feared insurrections, because the opportunity of going around wearing masks made rebels and outlaws not easily recognizable.

piazza Navona (the oval enclosure) in the 1400s
For this reason, in times of unpopular measures, such as when new taxes were issued, any pretext could be used to cancel fancy costume celebrations and parades. For instance, in 1837 the official reason claimed for the ban was an outbreak of cholera.

The first Carnival celebrations were held in piazza Navona, in times when it was still called platea in Agone. In this central place, since the Middle Ages, the Municipality organized bullfights and knight tournaments; the latter consisted in hitting a revolving target (the so-called Saracen); one of its variants was the game of the ring (i.e. hitting a ring that hung from a large tub filled with water, that spilt on the horseman if he was not fast in dodging it).

After some time, games were held also by Testaccio Hill, next to the south-western stretch of the old set of walls, basically a desertic area just within the city's boundary. Besides the aforesaid entertainments, on this spot another blood-shedding event took place, known as the rolling of the pigs.
A number of small carts carrying alive pigs were towed on top of the hill, from where they were pushed along its steep side; rolling down, the carts tilted and smashed, while at the bottom of the hill a great crowd gathered, competing for the animals (or what was left of them) in a huge and bloody brawl.

Around the mid 1400s, pope Paul II had the main Carnival celebrations moved to another location; being Venetian, he took this occasion for enhancing the prestige of his newly built Palazzo Venezia, in piazza Venezia, which in those days was much smaller than today.

Monte Testaccio in a 16th century etching: a Carnival bullfight is in progress

The chosen site of the Carnival festival was the adjacent via del Corso, still called via Lata (these were the city's northern suburbs, during the Renaissance), which in earlier times, i.e. in ancient Rome, was the first stretch of the Flaminian way.

The Game Of The Ring (detail), etching by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1825
Here the common people's fantasy gave birth to another bizarre competition: a race along the 1.km-long street (about 1 mile), run by people of all sorts and by animals, whose schedule was fixed by a bull issued by Paul II:
  • on the first Monday, the Jews ran, and before the race they were forced to overeat, so to be less agile;
  • on the first Tuesday, Christian children ran;
  • on Wednesday, young Christians ran;
  • on Thursday, elderly people over 60 ran;
  • on the second Monday, donkeys ran;
  • on Mardi Gras, buffalos ran.
According to such scheme, besides Friday and Sunday, no race was held on Saturday, as well.

In later years, such division by category became less strict; several sources mention also dwarfs, cripple and deformed participants that took part in the race. The people enjoyed watching the strange competitors, and made fun of them, also throwing at them all sorts of garbage.
In 1667 Clement IX put an end to this barbarous custom, but then the Jews began to be charged for most of the Carnival's expenses, and had to endure the shame of the festival's opening ceremony.
The Chief Rabbi of the community went to the Town Hall, on the Capitolium Hill, and knelt before the Senator and the Conservators, i.e. Rome's administrators, pronouncing a declaration of self-contempt, to which the Senator replied with the words: Go! For this year we tolerate you, and gave the head of the Roman Jews a kick in his rear!

Also during the following centuries, the opening of the Carnival was celebrated in a rather gruesome way, by performing a public execution or, in case no death sentence was scheduled, the public infliction of corporal punishment upon one or more convicts for minor offences. There is little doubt that in those days the public appreciated it as an 'amusement'. A faithful description of this custom was left by the French painter Antoine-Jean-Baptiste Thomas, in his work Un an à Rome et dans ses environs ("one year in Rome and in its surroundings"), whose relevant passage can be read in this page.

The Candle Race in Via del Corso (detail), by I. Caffi, c.1850

Carnival costumes, etching by Bartolomeo Pinelli (1834)
But besides this, also harmless events took place, such as fancy costume parades, during which onlookers were thrown small coloured sweets made of candy enclosing a coriander seed, then (19th century) made of starch or chalk, called confetti, and small fragments of coloured paper called sbruffi. Flowers were offered to the prettiest girls. The most popular costumes were inspired by the Commedia dell'Arte, in particular Harlequin and Punch, but, as remembered by J. W. Goethe in his Italian Journey (1817), among those who were laughed at were also lawyers (represented as twaddlers) and quakers (elegant, chubby but daft), and there were also young men who wore women clothes, acting indecently, and those who dressed up as beggars, and were given sweets, nuts and other treats by the public. At nightime, instead, public dances called festini were held until dawn.

During the day, many wore fancy costumes. After sunset this was still allowed, but without wearing a mask, for security reasons; these masks, made of wax or papier-maché, were so popular that the sellers made a real business out of them over the Carnival days.

Also priests, friars and nuns were allowed to have fun, yet within the premises of their own convents (not in the streets); they could enjoy music, dances, rich meals, and even wear fancy clothes, if they were not outrageous. The only fancy garments that enclosed nuns were allowed to wear, though, were the actual clothes of their own confessors!

The final act of Rome's Carnival, on the evening of Mardi Gras, was the charming Candle Race, in which participants carried a candle or a small lantern and, as they ran, they tried to put out other people's lights.

← people wearing wax masks in this detail from Rome's Carnival, a painting
  by Jan Miel (1653); the personages below are wearing Swiss Guard costumes

The most awaited event over the eight days was the Barbary Race, run by Barbary horses (a North African breed, somewhat low but rather muscular); among the roman folk, this race had replaced the one run by freaks, no longer allowed. It was held eight times, one for each of the Carnival days, and it took place just before sunset. The Barbary horses raced without a jokey, starting from piazza del Popolo and reaching at full speed the opposite end of via del Corso, piazza Venezia, whose size was about one fifth of the present vast plaza. Here a large curtain was hung, to stop the horses, while a number of grooms, boasting their courage and strength, launched themselves among the animals, in the attempt of clutching them (the so-called catching of the Barbaries), amidst a great chaos.
As a prize, the owner of the winning horse was awarded an embroidered banner, made of expensive fabric, obviously payed for by the Jews.

The Start of the Barbary Horses (detail), painting by G.F.Perry, 1827

For this occasion, stands were built in piazza del Popolo, near the race start. Personalities enjoyed the event from balconies of the buildings that overlooked via del Corso, adorned with drapes, festoons and other decorations; who was not invited, could still rent a place. Most of the people stood in the street, crammed on either side of the roadway, on a step that acted as a tall and narrow pavement, now no longer extant.
What made the race very dangerous, despite the guards made sure that the crowd complied with the most elementary safety measures, was the narrow width of the race course. For this reason, in 1665 pope Alexander VII had an ancient arch that crossed via del Corso, known as the Arch of Portugal (see There Once Was In Rome...), taken down, as it caused a bottleneck midway along the course.

(↑ above) a balcony along via del Corso (José Benlliure y Gil, c.1870);

(← left) the catching of the Barbary horses in Piazza Venezia,
detail from a watercolour by Achille Pinelli, c.1835

In 1874, during the race, a young boy thoughtlessly crossed the street while a horse was coming, and died trampled under the eyes of the royal family. King Victor Emmanuel II had the event discontinued, and it was never held again. This marked the end of the race, but also the end of Rome's Carnival, as they were so closely related. Even poet Trilussa wrote in one of his sonnets, Er carnovale de mò ("Nowadays' Carnival"), in 1890:

Leva er tarappattà, leva la gente,
leva le corze... la bardoria è morta,
er carnovale s'ariduce a gnente.

Dicheno bene assai li mi' padroni:
de tutt'er carnovale de 'na vorta
che ciarimane mò? 'N par de... vejoni.
No more din, no more crowd,
no more races... the fun is dead,
Carnival turns into nothing.

My masters are right in saying that
all that is left of what Carnival
once used to be, is but a few parties.

1. - A play on words: un par de vejoni means "a few late night fancy dress balls", but un par de cojoni (the expression actually understood, which literally means "a pair o' bollocks") is a common and rather rude way for saying "absolutely nothing".

via del Corso, as it appears today

During the 20th century, only a vague reminiscence of these happenings lingered in the name of via del Corso.
In very recent years, though, attempts of reviving some of Rome's Carnival traditions have been made: street parades, classic plays of the 16th and 17th centuries whose characters gave origin to some of the most popular costumes, and other events are scheduled in some of the city's historical squares, particularly over the weekend before Mardi Gras.

Rome's Carnival in piazza Navona (2009): fancy costumes
and a classic Commedia dell'Arte play (right →)