12 février 2019

Battle of Oranges : The Carnival of Ivrea or the symbol of Italian’s rebellion against tyrants

It is Sunday, the third of March, two in the afternoon in Ivrea, Italy, and the piazza di Città is silent. An enormous crowd constituted of people wearing Phrygians caps on their heads and holding oranges in their hands is waiting. Not far from the square, you can hear the clapping of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones. The crowd is getting excited. Finally, the carriages of the “Aranceri” (the orange-throwers, which represents the guardians of the tyrant’s state) enter the crowded square : the mob explodes and starts throwing oranges at the guards in helmets perched on tanks. The carnival of Ivrea truly begins.

A period of popular jubilation : a folk and picturesque event


“Ivrea citizens live for the carnival”, tells me Davide, a member of the “Tuchini del Borghetto” team (Revolutionaries of the Borough) who has been participating in the carnival for the past six years. “It’s not only about throwing oranges, all the symbolism of the carnival is rooted in our culture, it is a very important local tradition for us. Everyone in the city is participating, no matter the weather. It’s a huge family event.”


The scene is quite impressive: nine squares covered with a thick carpet of oranges. Just imagine : it really blows your mind when you realize that, for each Ivrea’s carnival, almost 400 to 500 tons of damaged oranges, coming from the overproduction in Sicily, are used for the battle. Hundreds of thousands of those citrus fruits are thrown away, crushed, smashed, and stepped on, during a battle that lasts more than two hours and which unfolds over three days in an incommensurably joyous collective celebration. The Ivrea’s battle of oranges is definitely the climax of the carnival.


“The most important thing about Ivrea’s carnival is that it is a deeply historical event.”


If Ivrea is well-known for its battle of oranges, it is important not to forget all the legend and the symbolic aspect which goes with it, as Davide likes to remind us : “The most important thing about Ivrea’s carnival is that it is a fundamentally historical event : even though the battle is fun, I don’t go there to fight. Behind this battle, there is our history, our fathers, our grandmothers, secular traditions…All the citizens of Ivrea know the legend and the song of the carnival. This enthusiasm for this festival is transmitted from generation to generation: once, my grandfather’s carriage was ranked first in the competition of the most beautiful cart! We still keep at home the flag he won where it’s written “First Place, 1975”, and we are really proud.”.


Established officially in 1808 in “The Book of Verbal Processes” (before, the carnival was only handed orally), the Carnival of Ivrea is one of the oldest in the world. But the origins of this carnival are somewhat unclear, since there are several versions and since all the characters of the carnival represents different historical periods.


A legendary tale of civic rebellion : the heroism of the “Mugnaia”


The legend says that the carnival commemorates a popular uprising in the 12th century against one of Ivrea’s local lords (which is said to be either the Marques William VII of Monferrato (1240-1292), or Guido III Ranieri di Biandrate (1119-1167) ) who were starving the city and who were exercising his droit du seigneur on all newlyweds. It was one of these young women, Violetta (nicknamed the “Mugnaia”, the queen of the carnival), who finally had the courage to decapitate him with his own sword. The audacity of this miller’s daughter empowered the populace which burned to the ground the tyrant’s castle.


Although the legend is already fascinating, Eporediesi (name of Ivrea’s natives, since the Latin name of Ivrea was Eporedia) must have thought that it would be too easy to stop there. During the 19th century’s French occupation of Italy, the ranks of the parade have been enlarged by new characters : soldiers of the Napoleonic army (and their General) and revolutionaries with symbols of the Jacobin revolt (the Phrygians caps). A meaningful parade, which is the key part of the ceremony, brings together all these characters from different centuries who have influenced the History of Italy.


“Some attribute the use of oranges to the fact that this fruit represent the tyrant’s removed testicles.”


However, there remains a major question : WHY ORANGES ? On this point, each inhabitant of Ivrea has his own opinion : some attribute the use of this fruit to the fact that oranges represent the tyrant’s removed testicles, whereas others believe it represents his head and the pulp and juice – his blood. Locals claim that, beforehand, in the 19th century, it was not oranges that were used, but beans. Some say that it is due to the fact that, in the medieval period, feudal lords gave pots of beans to the poor, who began throwing the beans back in order to express their anger towards such disrespect and meagre charity. Then, people have started using oranges after some girls started to throw this fruit at the boys they found attractive : if the feeling was mutual, the boys would throw the oranges back. Nevertheless, nowadays, the beans are not totally banned from the carnival : the traditional “Fagiolata” (a soup with beans, sausages, lard and onions) is distributed to people in the streets just like in the Middle Ages.

Ivrea’s carnival as a symbol of freedom and fraternity against despotic forces of political oppression

During the 13th-15th century, Italy has been marked by numerous tyrants : after the death of Frederick II, the Holy German Empire lost its power in Italy. Tensions within the municipalities as well as political and economic instability encourage the emergence of local lords, perceived, initially, as powerful protectors. But in order to establish their legitimacy, the leaders of these new dynasties do not hesitate to claim their tyrannical means as necessary for the establishment of a certain stability. Among the most famous Italian tyrants, we can list the Visconti in Milan, the Este in Ferrara, the Medici in Florence or the Della Scala in Verona. These despotic governments multiplied perfidies and crimes and, in the 15th century, murders made princes.

“These despotic governments multiplied perfidies and crimes and, in the 15th century, murders made princes.”

As the researcher in École française de Rome Renaud Villard points out, “In an Italy abandoned to the grip of tyrants which was setting up a new art of governing, politics were no longer perceived as a science of the common good, but rather as a technique for preserving power : the tyrant manifests himself openly as such, thus participating in this discourse of the necessary tyranny.” (extract from the article The tyrant and his double: the capture of the tyrant by the Italian prince in the 16th century). Indeed, the Italian people first have resigned themselves to this tyranny, seeing it as a necessary evil for the common good. They agreed that the worst form of government is not tyranny, but disorder, i.e. the absence of a real government : tyranny, as a recognised and acceptable form of government, is therefore regarded as definitely better than chaos. Tyrannical practices thus became at the time commonplace : lords have abused their power and perpetrated political violence.



One might therefore believe that it was precisely in a surge of despair that the citizens of Ivrea created the carnival: a way for them to treat despotism with a light tone, to show their aspirations to free themselves from oppression, and to physically express their hatred for the tyrant. The combination during the carnival’s parade of different symbols confirm this hypothesis : the battle of oranges, which represents the town’s rebellion against the tyrant and feudal authority ; the horsedrawn carts, which stand for the lord’s army ; the orange throwers on foot are the revolutionaries ; the Phrygian hat symbolizes the ideal of revolution, as it was for the protagonists of the French revolution ; and the Mugnaia embodies the idea of freedom. Moreover, during the whole carnival, the streets resonate with the “Canzone del Carnevale” (Song of the Carnival). Every Eporediese knows the lyrics : they sing all together, repeating proudly “La vittoria popolana” (“The victory of the people”) and “Il Castello non c’è più” (“The Castle is not existing anymore”). This fictional and temporary insurrection of the population against the despotic power in place is a clear symbol of the revolt of the people against any kind of tyranny.


“The Ivrea’s carnival represents the everlasting struggle of people against the tyrannical political power and the eternal victory of the people.”


Whether it happens in the 12th, 18th or 20th century, it seems that History repeats itself. The great political figures of Italy were often despotic, and that is what the Ivrea’s carnival represents: the everlasting struggle of people against the tyrannical political power and the eternal victory of the people. This can be deduced from the doctor in History and ex-member of École française de Rome Simon Sarlin’s article ( The Collapse of pre-unitarian Italy: the case of the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies in  Revue d’histoire du XIXe siècle) : “Since the early 1990s, in a context of high geopolitical instability, political science has sought to describe the dynamics that favour the failure of a political system (…). The concept of the “Failed State” is based on the idea that a state’s failure resides in the growing inability of the political system to fulfil its missions and thus to build its legitimacy. This situation is generally associated with the blocking of government mechanisms, widespread corruption, the rise of dissident elites or even armed revolutionary groups, and conflictual relations with the international community.”. Couldn’t what Italy experienced in the 20th century be compared to what happened during the 13th-15th century? Indeed, one is tempted to observe striking similarities with the current situation in Italy, and ask whether the recent rise in power of the Five Star Movement and his leading figure Matteo Salvini is not the contemporary equivalent of this “blocking of government mechanisms”, “rise of dissident elites” and “corruption”, which happened in the 13th-15th  century. In any case, remember that, for Italians, for centuries, tyranny has been told to be better than disorder…Until the tyrant abuses his rights.


After those three fatty days, the carnival ends with the ashing of the “scarli” (the scralets). The “Mugnaia” as a symbol of liberty, must keep the sword raised to the heavens until the fire is extinguished. The Dark March is played, and we can hear the soldiers’ swords squeal on the cobblestones : it’s the funerals of the carnival. The crowd is in a total silent. In 1866, the politician and journalist Jules Amigues wrote about this funeral in Le Monde illustré : “ (…) the crowd disperses silently and everyone returns home. Half an hour later, there is no more light in the windows, no more noise in the air; the houses are black and the streets deserted as in a besieged city.”.


Margaux d’Adhémar

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