It would be great today to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. You could walk from parade to parade catching beads and drinking alcohol on the streets while wearing a funny costume. It would be terrific to be in Venice where you could be taking pictures of the most exotic masked figures who would be strutting around just for you. But the very best place of all to be today would be Ivrea, Italy.
Ivrea is a small city near my ancestors’ neck of the woods in the section of Italy called Piemonte, or Mountain Foot. The town is an hour north of Turin, which is a city at least most people have heard of. Ivrea might be small, but on the subject of carnival, it has no rivals. Today, for the third day in a row, people will go around town throwing oranges at one another.
“Oranges, you say?” Yes. Oranges imported from Sicily. Today thousands of oranges will be sacrificed in the name of tradition.
“What kind of silly tradition is that?” you might ask. To make a long story short, in the Middle Ages or so, brides were supposed to spend their first nights not with their chosen husbands but with the ruler of the town, who was a member of nobility. In Ivrea one night, the miller’s daughter rebelled. She attacked the nobleman, murdered him, and survived. She became the town’s revered hero. In her honor, then, the townspeople of Ivrea and neighboring areas join squads. Either they join squads of noblemen and women and drive around in carriages drawn by horses, or they join squads of peasants and stay in the squares ready for battle.
During the course of the day, all the horse carriages, which will number around fifty, will drive through the four main squares to have battles with the Mercenari and other squads. The “nobles” in the carriage will furiously throw oranges down at the “peons” who will fight back as quickly as possible.
Oranges will fly through the air until the whole piazza looks like a juggling match gone wrong. Sometimes an orange will bounce the wrong way and even attack the spectators. As long as you’re wearing a red cap, declaring that you are neutral, you are not a target—until a stray orange splats all over your coat. Then suddenly you are part of the fray.
The first time I saw the orange battles of Ivrea, my mouth dropped open. I couldn’t believe that people were wasting so many oranges or that the air could actually be perfumed with the smell of citrus. Such a thing was inconceivable. But that was back in the 80s. Today the traditional is still going strong. By the time I wake up Arizona time, the air in Ivrea will be scented with oranges. The big crates of fruit will be emptied, one by one, as the squads madly grab for ammunition to throw at their peers.
When the battles finally conclude, the day’s light will be coming to an end. The tired orange throwers will retire for showers—actually, my cousin doesn’t even let her sons in the house. They have to shower off outside no matter how cold it is to get the worst of the sticky liquid off their clothes and out of their hair. Then they can go in the house for a regular warm shower. After that, you might think the tired battlers would go to bed, but of course, that’s not the case. They will have a deep need to go out and celebrate their triumph by partying far into the night.
If I were in Ivrea today, I would not join in on the battles. For one thing, it’s quite expensive. To participate, you have to have the right outfit, and you have to pay a fee to your squad. Most of that money goes for clean up. The horses don’t care that it’s carnival or not, so after the first few hours, the oranges blend with horseshit with spilled wine, with lost scarves. The streets become a slippery, gluey mess. It’s far better to crash at my friends’ house. They have a balcony that overlooks one of the biggest squares. From there I not only have a great view, but from three stories up, I don’t get any oranges.
All in all, Carnevale in Ivrea is a glorious celebration. The fighters say that it helps them get out their frustrations, that they can unleash all of their disappointments in one big, three-day festival. I prefer to get out my frustrations by killing off ex-boyfriends in books or short stories, but I admit that throwing oranges for three days at carnival would be a more efficient solution than putting in the long hours it takes to write a book. But it would also be a whole lot messier. Plus I’d have to find some earrings to match the vibrant carnival color of orange.
Short YouTube Video from 2009
D.R. Ransdell is a novelist in Tucson, Arizona, but her Italian roots take her to Italy time and time again. Please visit her at http://www.dr-ransdell.com.