Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Carnival Time & Viareggio

Carnival, the period preceding Lent in European Catholic countries such as Italy, is a time to reflect on last year's events.  In Tuscany, this reflection manifests itself in the form of a parade of satirical papier-mache carri (floats) at the Viareggio Carnival.  Taking hundreds of hours to assemble, the building-size floats proceed a seaside boulevard in competition, according to size, 
for a grand prize.

Although Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, took place last week, the Viareggio Carnival continues this weekend (Sat. March 3 at 7 pm and Sun. 4 at 2:30 pm) with the final parades, awards ceremony and fireworks.  
Where else but Italy can you bend the rules?

Last Tuesday, on Martedi Gras, I had fully intended to see the Carnival from the press platform along with Allison Clark, the Beautiful Florence's current official blog photographer.  Then I was called suddenly to a meeting at the U.S. Consulate in Florence regarding our Amerigo & America project, so I sent Vista writer Rita Kungel instead.  The following blog post is a melange of impressions of the three of us (I am familiar with the Carnival, having reported on it for Vista.  Be patient, 
our new web site is in progress).

I realized it was Martedi Gras when I walked past this butcher on via Senese near my home.
Next to his advertising "First Quality Meat," he posted a sign which communicated
"CLOSED on Feb. 22, Ash Wednesday."  In the Catholic faith, Ash Wednesday is a "fast day," i.e. no eating between meals and above all no meat.  
So Italian butchers took the day off.  Not bending the rules worked in their favor.

Back to the Viareggio Carnival, during which the Tuscans use their famous biting wit to comment on contemporary culture and politics.  I pass the pen to Rita.

"After an hour and a half train ride from Florence, Allison and I walked from the Viareggio station to the press office.  In my hand I had a letter, in Italian, to the Carnival contact who had granted us accreditation to the prestigious press stand.  The door to the official Carnival Foundation had a sign on it saying the office was closed until 3:45, an hour after the parade was to begin.  Having living in Italy for several years, I shrugged my shoulders and inquired a proprietor of a gift shop next door who told me that no press passes were necessary or admission charged today because it was Martedi Gras.  
Signora, tutto OK, she assured.

"A few minutes later there were still plenty of seats in the press stands, Allison and I went as high up as we could to get the best view.  The stands face the sea and the bright sunlight reflected off the water added to the festive atmosphere and the sense of anticipation in the air.  Within the next half hour, the crowds magically appeared, the stands filled up and the streets were crowded with people in elegant or absurd costumes, families of five all dressed as leopards, stilt walkers and a nearly nude Neptune--all throwing confetti in the air with abandon.  We could see down the street the massive papier mache floats 
waiting for the parade to begin.

"The enormous floats began to move slowly past the VIP and press stands.  They were all numbered, but in true Italian style appeared in random order, number 4 before number 1.  
I was never to find out why.

Allison and I agreed that our favorite was Ma dov'e questo crisis (But Where is This Crisis?).  A towering sea captain appeared, whom we first mistook for Francesco Schettino, the captain of the ill-fated, shipwrecked cruise liner Costa Concordia.  'Boy, they sure worked fast,' said Allison, given the disaster happened on January 13.  But in actual fact the captain represented was Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank.  His menacing figure and rolling eyes with a vulture on his shoulder emerged out of a listing Titanic.

"The heads of Portugal, Spain, Italy and France were perched on the edge of the deck, while an austere Angela Merkel--wearing a dirndl--held her hands out in a gesture of frustration.  Already over board was the Greek prime minister, an anchor dangling between his legs.  Heading the float was Silvio Berlusconi, grinning broadly, entangled between sea serpents and and sirens.  The view from the rear revealed that 'the emperors had no pants on."

Allison wrote, "The floats were decorated with smart political satire on a massive scale, proof that in Italy, even the ability to laugh at one's flaws can be reason for celebration."

The writings of Dante inspired the float Lasciate ogni speranza voi che entrate qui....all'agenzia
(Abandon All Hope You Who Enter Here...at the Agency, aka the Italian IRS), thanks to incessant requests for money from taxpayers.   Below is a detail of the float.

The sentence above is from my own preview of the event for Month by Month.  
I pass the pen again to Rita.
"The elaborate and beautifully painted floats involve artists and designers who work on them all year and hundreds of costumed people ride on them to sing, dance and interpret this theatre on wheels."

Again, from Month by Month:  in the float 2012:  Un solo futuro, il passato (2102, Our only Future is the Past), all of contemporary society's ills--armed conflicts, terrorism and environmental rape--are symbolized by the Tyrannosaurus, a tyrannical beast responsible for the extinction of his fellow dinosaurs.

See the waving palm tree?  This is the seaside boulevard in Viareggio.

The worst case scenario of this float is offset by the another float depicting a beautiful, multicolored Phoenix in flight rising from its own ashes.  Rita commented, "After depictions of environmental destruction, the ever-expanding Italian bureaucracy and other doom and gloom subjects, the mood suddenly changed, thanks to this float, the mood suddenly changed.  Queen's "We're the Princes of the Universe" blasted out and the crowd went wild.

Above is a beautiful detail of a beautiful float.  
Back to Rita.  "The floats compete for prizes and spectators can vote by calling or texting the number on the back of each.  An amusing twist is that the numbers on them are not consecutive, so the second float, our favorite, was actually number 7.  E' Italia!"

The final word to Allison:  "There were no barriers lining the road.  Crowds filled the street, parting only when the floats approached, threatening to run them over.  By late afternoon, the sunlight from the beach touched everything.  It was truly an amazing spectacle, between the colors, the costumes, the music and the confetti that clung to everything it touched, layering the street."

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