When I first visited Viareggio years ago, I was a bit confused to see an enormous clown statue, and to pass by a complex of buildings full of carnival rides and decorations. What was this sleeping circus doing parked in an Italian beach town?
It was explained to me that that clown is Burlamacco, the mascot of the Carnival celebrations held in Viareggio every year. I never fully understood why Carnival, or Carnevale in Italian, was such a big deal in Viareggio a few weeks ago.
On “Martedì Grasso” (Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday) I experienced the Carnival of Viareggio for the first time, and now I understand why traces of Carnevale, like the confetti I’ve been finding in my hair and pockets, are found in Viareggio all year long. During a visit to the “Fondazione Carnevale di Viareggio,” the Carnival of Viareggio Foundation, we met the people behind the organization of the event, and talked with them about the history of Viareggio’s Carnival, and what it means to the people of Viareggio.
The History of Carnevale in Viareggio & Burlamacco
The Carnival of Viareggio is one of the most important in Italy and in Europe. It dates back to 1873, when a group of citizens decided to have a masked parade on Fat Tuesday in protest against excessive taxes – in fact the idea of political commentary remains an important aspect of the celebrations today.
Year after year the parade continues to grow in size and popularity. In 1931 Uberto Bonetti designed the clown now named Burlamacco as part of an advertisement for the event. Because of his immediate popularity, the clown quickly became the mascot of Viareggio’s Carnevale, and his statue can be found all year long on the lungomare. If you visit during Carnevale you’ll see him just about everywhere! Burlamacco is always a popular costume choice.
The Carnevale Floats
When the summer beach season is winding down and the town is emptying out of tourists and temporary residents, the people of Viareggio are already starting to think about Carnevale. In September the float craftsmen present their sketches for the following year’s floats. The construction of these floats takes months, and if you see their size you’ll understand why.
The people behind the floats are true artists, conceptualizing and working painstakingly alongside an assisting engineer to build these enormous, moving paper-machè creations. They often have elements of social and political commentary, such as this year’s “The Submerged Peninsula” showing Italy sinking underwater with Neptune, God of the Sea, caricatures of politicians clinging to famous Italian monuments, trying to delay their inevitable swim.
The floats are absolutely incredible, complete with moving parts, performers, music and even dancers on the ground preceding the float. We had the opportunity to climb aboard a few and see Carnevale from the on top of the floats themselves. Dozens of people are on each one, working the pulleys and levers inside to animate the float. With a DJ, dancers and a huge confetti cannon, each float feels like it’s own contained mobile rave.
Be a Part of Carnevale!
The best thing about the parade is that there are no barriers! The floats glide through the crowds. You can dance along with the performers, touch the floats, get in confetti fights with just about everyone, and feel the entire time like part of the show.
You don’t watch this parade – you join it! So put on your costume (or least a wig) and fill your pockets with confetti!
With most large and renowned events, I’m not surprised to hear the locals lament the invasion of their city by hundreds of tourists. Usually a big parade like this is a burden on the inhabitants of a city who can’t wait for the disturbance to be done with so they can get back to their daily lives.
The unique thing about the Carnival of Viareggio is that the opposite is true for the people of Viareggio! This is an event that is beloved by the locals. Talking with a few locals, I found that the Carnevale season is something they talk about and look forward to all year long, and they were excited to see my impression as a first timer. Suffice to say that my reaction didn’t disappoint.
This attitude among the locals was definitely the highlight of the experience. Dancing in and around the paper-machè islands of Freddy Mercury and John Lennon, I felt like the people of Viareggio were happy to host us all for their favorite party of the year. It’s a party I’m definitely planning on going back to, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for next year!
Author’s Bio: Krista is an American, born and raised in Los Angeles, and now living in Florence, Italy. On her blog, she writes about coffee, aperitivo, and events in Florence. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram: @allafiorentina