In collaboration with:

By Cinzia Dugo

Firenze:is the party here?

Florence: is the party here? Although most people agree that all festivities, whether public, private, religious or civic, have a certain importance, many find it hard to decide which of these festivities are really the most popular. The legendary top of the class has in fact been occupied for some time by Easter and Christmas, though many people think that two other traditional winter celebrations in Italy deserve to be considered their worthy rivals, thanks to the light-hearted gaiety they bring to this time of the year. Naturally we are talking about the Twelfth Night, a feast day that was revived as recently as 1987, after a nine-year suppression, and Carnival, the spectacular protagonist of the second month of the year. They are both very ancient festivals; the former dates back to the early Christians and the Apostles, while the latter has links with the profane orgiastic type rituals, revived and enriched during the Renaissance. In this period the Florentines in particular let themselves go in a swirl of incredibly opulent festivities as they saw the feast more as a real break in their daily toil, rather than as a well-deserved holiday, and all the citizens of Florence took an active part, and not just as spectators, in the celebrations. Therefore, if we narrow the subject down to Tuscany's capital city, we can also affirm that the dynamic dare-devil character so typical of the Florentines became even more pronounced during the festivities. The religious or profane events were an excuse for the entire population to spend time and money without a care in the world. A memorable example of this are the magnificent performances organised by Lorenzo the Magnificent who, apart from being naturally generous and interested in anything connected with culture, understood the 'political' importance of the saying "Bread and feasting keep the people happy" only too well. Going back to the origins of these feasts, Epiphany is above all a favourite with children, who wait impatiently for the night of January 6th when and a weird old white witch comes bearing gifts. This character is extremely popular with almost all children who imagine her as a kind but very ugly old lady, with warty nose and jutting chin, well past her prime, and a good and generous heart. After deciding which of her small admirers have been good and which have been naughty, this funny old crone traditionally fills their stockings with gifts of either sweets or coal, awarded on the basis of the behaviour of their artless recipients. This odd character can in fact be said to be the result of the many manoeuvres that are created when the line dividing popular history and legend becomes so narrow that it completely disappears, especially if imagination and faith are exploited to the full. Children probably have no idea that the word Epiphany comes from the Greek "Epifaneia", meaning event, or the divine apparition of Jesus Christ in human form before the Three Kings. It has therefore a deep religious meaning celebrated by the Church twelve days after Christmas. The feast underwent a slow process of transformation much later, a sort of profanisation, when people began to think of it as a prelude to Carnival, allusive of the first masked processions that are a direct derivation of medieval miracle plays. Thus, to start with, it still managed to recall the religious importance of the journey of Magi to Bethlehem; in fact the holy scenes of this type were acted out by young men in costume. They were replaced by masked processions, magnificent floats, an assortment of witches and wizards, young people in masked costume and composers of religious songs (the Befana songs). Over the years the feast evolved even further, taking on a more popular form; dummies representing the Befanas or witches were placed on a cart and, accompanied by young men playing long glass trumpets, taken to some small square where they ended up on a bonfire watched by an excited and noisy crowd. In later years Twelfth Night lost its public importance and was further transformed into a feast for small children who were only too pleased that its more frightening aspects, which initially stemmed from the traditional commemoration of the Slaughter of the Innocents, had been set aside and replaced by the wish to create a suitable occasion to give them presents. As we said above, Carnival could also be considered one of the most popular feasts in the year, especially if we consider its ancient origins, the Roman Saturnalia, which is where its tendency to completely upset people's normal role in life comes from: slaves become owners and vice-versa. During the Renaissance this fascinating and yet disturbing image of an 'upside down world' can be seen over and over again alongside another aspect that soon expressed itself and grew in importance: a desire for pleasure, light-hearted gaiety, happiness and freedom in love and food at all costs. In Florence even the women, usually forced to maintain their roles of wives and mothers, made the most of this extraordinary festival to give free reign to their wildest desires and teased their husbands by singing: "oh, keep your aches and pains to yourself/mad and senile old men/Leave us alone,/we just want to enjoy ourselves..." There is little doubt that the Carnival interlude, in 16th century Florence, honoured by the common people and the narrow aristocratic literary circle alike, was synonymous with dancing, singing, wining and dining, allegorical floats, tilting, tournaments and football games. All this pleasure and entertainment, whether held in the splendid lordly mansions or simply in the streets, had a precise social function; it gathered people of all classes together, shortening and levelling out the various distances and differences; this brought very positive results, probably thanks to the fact that the opposing social classes were well aware that the duration of this liberating upheaval in the class system was limited to a short period. The Carnival festivities were a wonderful celebration of all the aspects and forms of life seen from a material as well as a spiritual point of view; celebrating it meant that people could forget, at least for a little while, their particular social condition and therefore change their identity, pretend to be somebody else, disguise themselves and act. This trend led to a large number of theatrical performances, usually comical and amorous in style, that eventually became a typical of the disorderly celebration of Carnival, an appointment that spectators and actors, whatever their social and cultural level, would never miss if they wanted to be serenely involved in something that brought 'no consequences'. After all, surely the theatre, the temple of pretence, is where the symbolic dual concept of being-appearing reaches its greatest heights? The festive occasion was in fact often celebrated in the theatre with performances, all night parties and dances, especially during the 17th century when, for instance, the famous Pergola Theatre, built on a design by Ferdinando Tacca, opened in Florence (1657): the auditorium could be raised by a special mechanism to the same level as the stage so that it could be transformed into a huge ballroom; dinner parties were instead held in the boxes and the area backstage. Certain dishes were reserved for Carnival time. In those days Carnival Thursday was called Berlingaccio (from the old German word 'bretling', meaning table) which, when used in reference to women in particular, rather than men, meant to drink and gossip on a full stomach. The banqueting tables were laden with such delights as flat sponge cake and "berlingozzi", typical sweets that were eaten on Berlingaccio or Carnival Thursday, and very popular with the Florentines. At 11pm on Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival, all the city bells were rung to remind everyone that the merry feast was almost over and that they would have to give up eating so well, as much and whatever they liked. The Carnival festivities are much more limited than they were in the past, though there are exceptions, like Viareggio; it is almost as though the old fashioned idea of allowing human nature to explode, roles to be reversed and values to be inverted for a short period of the year has gradually been lost, smothered and at the same time rendered inoffensive by the system; perhaps because now such heights of chaos take place every day and are part of our contradictory existence, incapable of warding off the advancing tide generally known as "daily and ordinary madness". Here is a typical Florentine motto for those who would like to neutralise it altogether: "At Carnival time anything goes"!

Translated by Susan Glasspool

©MEGA Via Lombroso 6/5 a
50134 Firenze
fax +39 055 412931