The Carnival in Sicily has very ancient origins; it is the feast of abundance and binge eating before the Lent fasts.
This is the week in which meat sauces and elaborate dishes are widely consumed, such as maccheroni or cavateddi with meat sauce and rind, and the ancient minestrone of Mardi Gras, typical of the County of Modica. There are also sweets such as the teste di turco (Turkish heads) in Scicli, pignolata, a soft pastry covered in chocolate and lemon-flavoured icing, in Messina, the delicious chiacchere, biscuits boiled in oil, or the sfinci di ricotta, Sicilian doughnuts with ricotta cheese.
This occasion gave rise to masks such as that of Peppi Nappa, the King of Carnival, the paladins and many other popular characters who mime comic scenes, such as the doctor who operates on an improvised stretcher on an unfortunate man, pretending to pull out his guts.
But there are also floats and allegorical parades, re-enactments and historical pantomimes, dances and ancient propitiatory rites.
In Catania, the Carnival often coincides with the celebrations of Saint Agatha, and is linked to the ancient tradition of the ‘ntuppatedde, when women of all social classes would dress up and go out at night, entering everywhere, even in places usually frequented only by men, telling jokes and playing games of seduction.
The Carnival of Acireale (Catania) is one of the oldest in Sicily; as early as 1880 the first allegorical floats were built and since then the tradition has been maintained thanks to the talented and enthusiastic craftspeople who express all their imagination and wit. The most characteristic mask seems to have been the abbatazzu or poet minutizzu, who mimicked nobles and ecclesiastics by carrying around a small book, from which he pretended to deliver satirical and mocking sentences.
A combination of joy, merriment, history and tradition characterises the Avolese Carnival (in the province of Syracuse), counted among the historic Carnivals of Italy. It is a festival with very ancient origins, probably dating back to the Middle Ages.
Today the carnival takes place over four days. On the afternoon of Mardi Gras Saturday, the puppet known as “Re Carnevale” (the Carnival King) parades, accompanied by the Avola band. On Sunday afternoon, from Viale Lido, the parade of floats and masked groups begins, accompanied by typical Sicilian carts. In the evening, a stage is set up in Piazza Umberto I for music and entertainment. Monday is almost entirely dedicated to the recitation of carnival songs (dialect poems), while Tuesday is dedicated to the final rehearsals of the dialect poetry competition and the evening parade, which ends with the presentation of cash prizes and the cremation of the Carnival King.
In Palazzolo Acreide (Syracuse), until the 1960s, they organised parties, danced and played “sottonovanta”, a kind of fishing tournament. Today, there is dancing in the square, parades of floats and a huge feast of cavati and sausages.
Big festivities are also held in Chiaramonte Gulfi (Ragusa) where the Sagra della Salsiccia (Sausage Festival) is organised on Monday evening.
The Carnival of Sciacca (Agrigento) dates back to the Roman Saturnalia. Papier-mâché craftspeople, architects, designers, blacksmiths, choreographers and dancers work with great skill for months. The figures are majestic and the movements of the masked groups are very sophisticated. New themes are recited in the Sicilian dialect and the satire is inspired by local and national political figures. The floats and groups parade through the streets of the old town from Maundy Thursday, with the symbolic handing over of the keys to the town to the carnival king Peppe Nappa, until Mardi Gras, with the burning of the float.
Papier-mâché is an ancient art, now being shared with visitors who can watch it being made in person. Watch the video “Sciacca, sogni nelle mani” (Sciacca, dreams in your hands)
In Termini Imerese (Palermo), allegorical floats parade, humorously depicting characters from the world of politics and show business. The Nannu and Nanna puppets are particularly distinctive. Their tradition dates back to the mid-19th century, passed on by Neapolitans fleeing with the Bourbons from Naples at the time of the uprisings. The Nannu represents the Carnival and its burning at the stake at midnight on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, marking the end of the period of merriment. The Nanna, on the other hand, is a tall, slender woman who symbolises the pain and penitence of Lent, but who dresses very coquettishly. One of the funniest moments of the festival is the reading of the Nannu’s will, in which the city’s most prominent personalities are ridiculed.
Also in Corleone (Palermo), where the allegorical floats parade, the Nanno is condemned to be burnt at the stake, adorned with a necklace made of sausages and carried on his shoulders by the riavulicchio (the little devil), representing the rebirth of a festival, only recently revived.
In Gioiosa Marea (Messina), the Carnival of Murgo has been held for almost 70 years. It is so-called because the “murga“, a characteristic ramshackle and colourful little orchestra led by the Murgo in tailcoat and top hat, is on stage. It is a tradition imported from Argentina, by returning emigrants who assimilated this aspect of Latin American culture, enriching it with local elements taken from the maritime context.
In addition to the traditional festivities, the Carnival of Novara di Sicilia (Messina) also includes the Maiorchino tournament, a race that involves rolling wheels of local pecorino cheese, a speciality obtained through a special process of processing and maturing, through the streets of the town. The event has as its natural conclusion the Sagra, where the stars of the show are ricotta and tuma cheeses!