Carnival in Puglia
Costumes, caricatures and clever social commentary
Carnival is a popular celebration in many Southern European, Central and South American and Caribbean nations.
In Italy specifically, the festivities are marked by typical food, music, parades and costume balls in the weeks preceding Ash Wednesday, which for Catholics marks the start of Lent, the 40 days of fasting and penitence leading up to Easter.
In fact, the name Carnival, or Carnevale in Italian, comes from two words alluding to what was to be given up til Easter: “carne” (meat) and “levare” (to get rid of).
While Carnival processions are quite popular all over Puglia, by far the most important Carnival celebration in all of Southern Italy is that held in Putignano, in the province of Bari. Believe or not it celebrated its 624th edition this year (yes, it really has been going on that long), making it Europe’s longest-running Carnival celebration.
The origins of what is today an elaborate display of creativity, hundreds of hours of work by local artisans, and costumed children and adults wandering the streets, date back to much humbler beginnings.
It all started in 1394, when the Order of the Knights of Malta decided to transfer relics of Saint Stephen to the town of Putignano. Legend has it that upon the Knights’ arrival to the city, local peasants left their work in the fields to greet them, singing praises in local dialect and thereby giving birth to the first carnival procession Puglia.
Nowadays, the parade – or rather, parades, as this year there were four processions that took place from January 28th to February 17th – are characterized by exquisitely-painted papier-mâché floats decorated according to that year’s particular theme. A jury panel chooses the best floats, which are the ones that ultimately make it to the final parade which announces the end of Carnival.
This year the category was that of “heroes”, and, interestingly enough, the winning float wasn’t quite what you would expect. The judges awarded first place to work of papier-mâché satire, which depicted, among other elements, a Trojan horse, a symbol of deceit, surrounded by a squad of fat, clumsy, caricatured “superheroes”.
The association who created the float explained that it was meant to fly in the face of who society puts on a pedestal and labels a hero. It represents, “the maddening mass media rhetoric that churns out fake heroes…famous people, idols created in a make-up room, who bask in the praise of the hypnotized masses”.
As one can see, Carnival in Puglia isn’t just about light-hearted antics and colorful floats. Rather, much like Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain, it provides a forum for dissident voices and makes room for political and social commentary, allowing spectators to reflect on current events, unquestioned values, and the direction that society is going in.
A symbol of Carnival in Puglia: La Farinella
But no matter the theme, an omnipresent symbol of the festivities is that of “La Farinella”, a jester who inherited his name from, of all things, an Apulian poor cuisine dish. Farina in Italian means “flour”, and la farinella is a typical dish from Puglia of ground and toasted chickpea and barley meal, sprinkled on figs and consumed with wild herbs and onions. It was typically eaten by peasants working in the fields during their lunch break, as this was usually all they could afford.
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