Art Culture > Subversive and intriguing: 5 things you might not know about Carnival Date posted: February 17, 2015

Subversive and intriguing:
5 things you might not know
about Carnival

Carnival’s history, symbols and meaning in Italy

A pop festival with ancient, fascinating and subversive origins: discover the history and many meanings of Carnival.

It is both a peasant celebration of the end of winter and the approach of spring, and also a strongly symbolic feast day to mark the beginning of the new calendar year that turned the social order upside down, with moments of chaos and unusual freedom. It is also a collection of practices and celebrations in which laughter becomes a symbolic and political principle. It is a festival of masks and disguises, where people hide their identities so they can assume new ones that are perhaps more powerful and charismatic. Blending history, religion and anthropological significance, here are the 5 most intriguing aspects of Carnival, the most entertaining festival of the year.

 

THE ORIGINS: FIRE FESTIVALS AND THE CYCLE OF THE SEASONS
Carnival’s history, symbols and meaning in Italy - fire festivals
Certain times and phases of the solar year have always held spiritual, strongly symbolic significance recognised by many cultures and peoples, irrespective of eras and civilisations. For the Indo-Europeans, this is the case of fire festivals, which are centred on the relationship between man and the cycles of nature. These are propitiatory rites that use flames, heat and the combustion of the natural element to facilitate the return of the light and the fertility that comes with the spring. From the time when Earth seems dead, during the winter rest period, it slowly moves to the first warmth of the new season, the first signs of rebirth, and still today, in rural contexts of rural tradition, the fire that emanates from the kindling of a bonfire or a dummy made from branches or straw is a reminder of the ancient fire rituals that once celebrated the reawakening of nature’s heat, purifying the seeds in the ground and facilitating abundant crops. This type of celebrations, typical of paganism, was the forerunner of Carnival, a first nucleus of meaning to which additional elements have been added over time.

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BETWEEN CHAOS AND SOCIAL BALANCE
Carnival’s history, symbols and meaning in Italy - Marduk and Tiamat
Shortly after the spring equinox, the ancient Babylonians performed a ritual celebrating the original foundation of the cosmos – the mythical battle between the God Marduk, the saviour, and the dragon Tiamat. This period was experienced with an unbridled freedom, as part of a reversal of the moral and social order that evoked the primordial chaos in order to exorcise it.

Carnival’s history, symbols and meaning in Italy - Saturnalia
The characters of the Carnival festival today also originated from other festivities and very ancient practices, such as the Greek Dionysian festivals (Anthesteria), in honour of the God Dionysus, primarily dedicated to wine and its powers over the human spirit, and the Roman festival of Saturnalia (holy days dedicated to the God Saturn). During these festivals, as with the Babylonians, there was a temporary abandonment of the social obligations and hierarchies. With parodies, pranks, jokes, debauchery, they were a moment of liberation and anarchy tolerated by the authorities, where energies and impulses were released before re-conforming to the ordinary regime after the party was finished. Every New Year, these festivals staged a perfect evocation of time at its inception, i.e. a repetition of cosmogony, the transition from chaos to cosmos: a ritual and temporary disorder that allowed the elimination of social unrest.

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LA RISATA: UNCOMMON LAUGHTER
Carnival’s history, symbols and meaning in Italy - Risata
Carnival is distinguished from other festivals and celebrations by one particular aspect: the centrality of jokes and especially of “la risata” laughter. Laughing is a widespread, common gesture, but its meanings are not often examined. It serves to relax the rhythms of everyday life and to reduce tension, but during Carnival laughter meets a special need: to mock or at least create a distance from the world built on impersonal and rigid models of hierarchy and power. Carnivalesque laughter is irreverent. It rejects the usual taboos and the ordinary rites of society, questioning paradigms and prejudices. Laughter is the way to join in the Carnival: people expose themselves by laughing and, for a while at least, making fun of a whole series of beliefs, platitudes and rules that normally enslave us. In its ambivalence, laughter both reaffirms and denies, breaking the rules but with the protection of the festival and by sharing with the group. As the philosopher Bergson wrote, we laugh as a reaction to the perception of a conflict: human life as a mechanism, as an automated process that is jeopardised by the interruption of something different, from the lack of regulations, or from violation of the rules.

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THE JOY BEFORE THE SACRIFICE
Carnival’s history, symbols and meaning in Italy - Quaresima
The word itself – “Carnival” – is linked to Catholic tradition, deriving as it does from the Latin “carnem levare” (“remove the meat”), because in former times it referred to the banquet held on the last day of this period (“Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras”), just before the abstinence and fasting of lent (as a reenactment of Christ’s forty days in the desert) leading up to Easter, i.e. the Resurrection. From the Catholic point of view, therefore, the Carnival was the last day on which we could eat meat. Symbolically, it was the allotted occasion for venting anything that was repressed, which would then be sacrificed. It was the time before the sacrifice, when something gratifying and joyful was still possible. Over time, the Church also condemned the Carnival as contrary to its rigorous dictates, especially given its libertine and transgressive inheritance. It even tried to bring order to the pagan festivities, in an attempt to moderate the most contraversial events

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WHAT DO THE MASKS SHOW?
Carnival’s history, symbols and meaning in Italy - Commedia dell'arte masks
Since the most archaic times, masks have been used in conjunction with body paints, tattoos and scarification as an effective means of communication between human reality and supernatural reality (the afterlife, divinities and imaginary figures). It was a tool that made it possible for people to break away from conventions in order to project themselves in an “other”, invisible world. Whoever wears a mask loses their own identity (their face is covered) to assume that of the figure or entity represented (they welcome the presence of a spirit, become someone else, or go into the realm of the dead, etc.). In the old festivities that the formed the basis of Carnival as we know it today (especially those in ancient Rome), the use of masks also probably had the purpose of rendering the wearers unrecognisable during licentious practices. In the sixteenth century, Carnival festivities in Italy began to be associated with theatrical performances, which were at first the prerogative of the noble classes, as masked actors performed their shows before courts and privileged elites. Later this type of interpretation of the festival was extended to a more popular level, giving rise to the famous Commedia dell’Arte masks, which are linked to the different Italian regions: Arlecchino, the cheating slave of Bergamo; Pulcinella, the sorrowful and wise servant of Naples; Pantalone, the elederly merchant of Venice; Meneghino, the justice-loving servant of Milan and many, many others. Still loved and used by adults and children, traditional masks form part of the immense repertoire of contemporary costumes and disguises we draw on to celebrate this ancient holiday.

 

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