Saturday, February 17, 2007

Carnival in Rome

MIEL, Jan (b. 1599, Beveren-Was, d. 1663, Torino)
Carnival in the Piazza Colonna, Rome
Oil on canvas
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.

MIEL, Jan (b. 1599, Beveren-Was, d. 1663, Torino)
Carnival Time in Rome
Oil on canvas
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The origins of Carnival (or Mardi Gras) are lost in history. Apparently it developed out of Greek pagan festivals some 5000 years ago. These spring fertility rites to Bacchus later gave rise to the Roman "Lupercalia," which were still celebrated in the first Christian centuries.

Just as the external trappings of the Feast of the Unconquered Sun were taken on by Christians in their celebrations of Christmas, so too, the Lupercalia became a sort of preparatory period for Lent.

The Christian name for the feast, "Carnival," apparently comes from "Caro, Vale" [Goodbye, meat] or perhaps "Carnem levare" [lift up meat] -- the sense being that days of fasting and abstinence from meat are on their way.

To the condemnation by Northern societies, Rome was the scene of extravagant excess during the days of Carnival.

In February 1645, Sir John Evelyn while on the "Grand Tour" described the Carnival thus:

"We were taken up next morning in seeing the impertinences of the Carnival, when all the world are as mad at Rome as at other places; but the most remarkable were the three races of the Barbary horses, that run in the Strada del Corso without riders, only having spurs so placed on their backs, and hanging down by their sides, as by their motion to stimulate them: then of mares, then of asses, of buffalos, naked men, old and young, and boys, and abundance of idle ridiculous pastime. One thing is remarkable, their acting comedies on a stage placed on a cart, or plaustrum, where the scene, or tiring-place, is made of boughs in a rural manner, which they drive from street to street with a yoke or two of oxen, after the ancient guise. The streets swarm with prostitutes, buffoons, and all manner of rabble."

On Saturday, February 25th,1634, Cardinal Barberini gave the Roman aristocracy a sumptuously presented sporting contest, La Giostra del Saraceno, and celebrations continued with parades of carnival floats, rich banquets and theatre performances and operas in the palaces. Meanwhile, in the city, popular celebrations were also in full swing: lackeys, peasants, pedlars and mountebanks, commoners and princes, laymen and friars, gentlemen and commoners came together in the streets to enjoy masques, games and races

In February 1788, Goethe recorded his impressions of the Carnival in Rome:

"The Roman Carnival is not really a festival given for the people but one the people give themselves... unlike the religious festivals in Rome, the Carnival does not dazzle the eye: there are no fireworks, no illuminations, no brilliant processions. All that happens is that, at a given signal, everyone has leave to be as mad and foolish as he likes, and almost everything, except fisticuffs and stabbing, is permissible.

The difference between the social orders seems to be abolished for the time being; everyone accosts everyone else, all good-naturedly accept whatever happens to them, and the insolence and licence of the feast is balanced only by the universal good humour.

During this time, even to this day, the Roman rejoices because, though it postponed the festival of the Saturnalia with its liberties for a few weeks, the birth of Christ did not succeed in abolishing it."

In the 1840s during the pontificate of Gregory XVI, Dickens visited Rome at the time of Carnival. He gives a full and lengthy account of the Carnival that time. Not bacchanalian but Dickens obviously enjoyed the experience. For his account, click

The Church repeatedly made efforts to check the excesses of the carnival, especially in Italy. During the sixteenth century in particular a special form of the Forty Hours Prayer was instituted in many places on the Monday and Tuesday of Shrovetide, partly to draw the people away from these dangerous occasions of sin, and partly to make expiation for the excesses committed.

On one occasion, during a Carnival, St. Felix of Cantalice (died at Rome, 18 May, 1587) and St. Philip Neri organized a procession with their crucifix; then came the Capuchin friars; last came Felix leading Fra Lupo, a well-known Capuchin preacher, by a rope round his neck, to represent Our Lord led to judgment by his executioners. Arrived in the middle of the revels, the procession halted and Fra Lupo preached to the people. The Carnival, with its open vice, was broken up for that year.

The celebrations included a race of riderless horses down Via del Corso, which takes its name from the event (corsa means race). The starting point for the race, known as the Corsa dei Berberi, was in Piazza del Popolo. At a given signal (la Mossa) the horses were set loose and galloped down the long, straight street to Piazza Venezia. Here stands had been erected so that the rich and noble citizens could enjoy a good view of the finish (la Ripresa), when the excited horses were caught again.

During the race, Via del Corso was lined with onlookers. The more fortunate watched from the balconies of the palazzi but the common people stood pressed against the buildings on either side of the narrow street and accidents were not infrequent.

Gradually the Carnival ran out of steam especially in the early years of the new Italian Kingdom. In Italian Hours, Henry James described the Carnival in the early 1870s. See

In 1874, during the race a young boy crossed the street while a horse was coming, and died under the eyes of the royal family. King Victor Emmanuel II cancelled the event, which was never held again. This marked the end of the Carnival in Rome.