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