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Italy’s Amazing Papier-mâché Parade is a Celebration to Rival Mardi Gras

Picture of Alex Jordan
Travel Editor
Updated: 29 June 2017
Each year the Italian seaside town of Viareggio hosts a month-long carnival that rivals Mardi Gras and Rio de Janeiro for its colour and creativity. Giant satirical floats, fancy dress and community spirit enliven the dark and dreary winter months.
Allegorical float of John Lennon at Viareggio Carnival held February 23 | © marchesini62 / Shutterstock
Allegorical float of John Lennon at Viareggio Carnival held February 23 | © marchesini62 / Shutterstock

Every February the people of Northern Italy go a little crazy. They flock to the seaside town of Viareggio, Tuscany in their thousands to unleash their inner jester. They forego their sartorial sensibilities and let loose in the spirit of Carnevale, one of Europe’s largest festivals.

The parade of carnival floats with dancing people on streets of Viareggio | © Onigiri studio / Shutterstock
The parade of carnival floats with dancing people on streets of Viareggio | © Onigiri studio / Shutterstock

The highlight of this 150-year-old celebration is undoubtedly the parade of giant floats that snake their way through the streets, past glamorous seaside hotels, cafes and restaurants. Revellers swarm the streets in masks and fancy dress, moving to the beats that pump out from the convoy.

Allegorical float at Viareggio Carnival | © marchesini62 / Shutterstock
Allegorical float at Viareggio Carnival | © marchesini62 / Shutterstock

First held in 1873, Carnevale was conceived by a group of wealthy middle-class locals, who organised a parade of floats adorned with flowers. Local citizens hijacked the festivities, wearing masks as they protested high taxation. A festival of dissent and disobedience was born and for generations since, the carnival has been a platform to ridicule politicians and celebrate popular culture using papier-mâché figures, some several stories tall.

Carnival of Viareggio attracts 600 thousand | © Antonio Gravante / Shutterstock
Carnival of Viareggio attracts 600 thousand | © Antonio Gravante / Shutterstock

Participants spend all year coming up with and building their floats. A basic structure of wood, metal and wire is covered in papier-mâché. Carnival floats can be very large with hundreds of characters and can accommodate several dozen people, including those who operate the figures and bring them to life. Due to their complexity, it is common for local architects, engineers, painters, sculptors and ceramicists to take part in the design and construction.

Allegorical float at Viareggio Carnival | © marchesini62 / Shutterstock
Allegorical float at Viareggio Carnival | © marchesini62 / Shutterstock

Carnevale’s mascot, Burlamacco, was created by local painter Uberto Bonetti in 1930 and has been used ever since. The jester was inspired by the theatrical masks of the Commedia dell’Arte, and symbolises the two major events in Viareggio’s calendar, summer and the carnival. Burlamacco’s red and white outfit is taken from the colours of the town’s beach umbrellas.

The parade of carnival floats with dancing people on streets of Viareggio | © Onigiri studio / Shutterstock
The parade of carnival floats with dancing people on streets of Viareggio | © Onigiri studio / Shutterstock
Allegorical float at Viareggio Carnival | © marchesini62 / Shutterstock
Allegorical float at Viareggio Carnival | © marchesini62 / Shutterstock

Carnevale di Viareggio runs on weekends throughout February. You can find more information and book tickets at viareggio.ilcarnevale.com.