Since the Middle Ages, social roles were reversed in this period: lords disguised themselves as peasants, and commoners could pretend to be princes or kings. In the 16th century, during Carnival, the Medici family organised large masked parades on floats called ’Trionfi’ in Florence. At that time, it was customary for the young scions, disguised as peasants, to organise raids in the nearby villages, playing pranks and throwing stones and balls made of rags at each other… the ancestors of today’s confetti! These incursions sometimes culminated in true quarrels. It seems that in 1534 the excesses of some young Florentine young lords caused great tension between the Medici and Strozzi families.
Carnival parades are still a very strong tradition in Tuscany. Among the oldest traditional events are the Carnival of Foiano – near Arezzo – which has been held since 1539, the historic Carnival of Bibbiena dating back to 1300, and the Carnival of Castiglion Fibocchi, also in the province of Arezzo, which dates back to 1174.
The five city quarters of San Casciano (Cavallo, Gallo, Giglio, Leone e Torre – Horse, Rooster, Lily, Lion and Tower) clash in some games inspired by historical events, such as the siege of the city by Castruccio Castracani (in 1326) and the construction of the city walls (in 1356). Street artists, jesters and falconers enliven this festival in perfect medieval style. There are also farriers, tailors and craftsmen, testifying to the ancient manufacturing tradition of this area, which still lives on in the technique and craftsmanship of Laika’s ”Made in San Casciano” vehicles.
The most famous and spectacular Carnival is undoubtedly the one in Viareggio, which is attended by hundreds of thousands of people every year, but which has been postponed this year – like other events – because of COVID-19. Even if you can’t attend the parades, don’t miss out on tasting the typical Tuscan carnival sweets! The choice is wide, but the most famous are cenci (also called ’chiacchiere’ or ’bugie’), crispy strips of fried dough with icing sugar. Then there are the sweet rice fritters and the classic Florentine schiacciata, a soft cake baked in the oven and decorated with cocoa and icing sugar, forming the design of a lily, the symbol of Florence.
But the most characteristic aspect of Carnival lies undoubtedly in the masks. Harlequin, Pulcinella and Columbina are among the most famous, but perhaps not everyone knows that there is also a Tuscan mask called Stenterello. This character, petite and with a pronounced nose, embodies the chatty and fearful Florentine commoner, who always manages to find – and give – a smile thanks to his biting irony, despite the difficulties. A perfect representative of the Carnival spirit!
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