Carnival traditions in Italy might last for a day or more than a month. But the climax always comes on Shrove Tuesday with a great feast before the abstinence of Lent (the Italian word Carnevale is thought to come from the Latin carnem levare, meaning ‘take away the meat’).
Until then we eat, drink and celebrate. Children delight in dressing up and throw confetti. Parades take place with floats and oversized papier-mâché models, often mocking real-life politicians or digging deep into Italy’s history and fairy tale traditions.
The Venice carnival, La Maschere, is perhaps the best known of Italy’s Carnevale. But the town of Putignano in Puglia, is home to the oldest and most extended Carnevale celebration in Italy.
History dictates the start of festivities begin on December 26 with a feast for Santo Stefano. Almost two months of celebrations take place ending with a final parade and “funeral” for Carnevale when 365 tolls of the Macaroni Bell officially mark the end of revelry.
Putignano’s Carnevale Origins
It is 1394. Puglia’s strategic location has made it prone to invasion and occupation. Following repeated Saracen raids and assaults, the fear of looting is real. The people must protect their most precious assets, moving the most vulnerable inland from the coast.
On December 26, 1394 the relics of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr, until then kept in the Abbey of Monopoli, are moved to Putignano. In a solemn and sacred procession these are taken to the church of Santa Maria la Greca, where they are still kept today.
At its passage workers abandon the fields where they work. Driven by joy and defiance in equal measure they join the procession, dancing and singing at they go along.
So was born the Festa delle Propaggini that, for 628 years, every December 26 marks the beginning of the longest Carnival in Italy and the oldest in Europe: the Putignano Carnival.
The transformation of the historical procession into the spectacular parade that today draws thousands of revellers from all over Italy can be traced back to the first half of the 1900s.
Small farming carts decorated with puppets of straw and rags, give way to larger floats with papier-mâché caricatures.
Putignano closes Carnivale with a succession of parades. These usually take place over a number of nights during the week before the start of Lent, with the grand finale taking place on the night of Shrove Tuesday. These attract over 10,000 each night.
Carnevale in Puglia
Carnevale is celebrated all around Puglia, with the other best known celebrations taking place in Manfredonia, Massafra, Gallipoli and Aradeo.
Carnevale is a time for fun, feasting and confetti. Look out for the wonderfully named chiacchiere (from the verb chiacchierare, to chatter, to gossip and so named because of the crunch they make). Thin fried pastries we eat during Carnevale season before lent.