I was lucky enough to cover the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, at which time I took a quick trip out to the village of Ivrea to take a peek at what I’d heard to be a knock-out carnevale festival. It was all it promised to be—and, it was a grand mess as well. I was also lucky in that the citizens of Torino guided me to great restaurants and places to visit while I was resident there, but most of all I was grateful for the article sent to me, written by Giorgio Pogliano, explaining the nuances and politics of the Ivrea Orange Festival, a classic retelling of the revolt against a tyrant, in this case Holy Roman Emperor Frederick of Swabia, a.k.a. Barbarossa (Red Beard).
The History of Storico Carnevale di Ivrea by Giorgio Pogliano
Ivrea is a small city about 40 minutes North of Turin. It was the headquarters of the first (short-lived) post-Roman kingdom of Italy, around 1000 a.D. More recently it became typewriter and then computer city, headquarters of Olivetti. Right now, with the computer industry gone east, it’s a city between jobs. It has its day of glory one time a year during Carnival, when a unique, exciting, anachronistic and most of all juicy orange battle takes place.
The battle is an allegoric representation of a local insurrection, in 1194, against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick of Swabia, a.k.a. Barbarossa (Red Beard). A local Joan of Arc, Violetta, supposedly started the insurrection, which resulted in the destruction of a castle that represented imperial power.
If Scottie could beam you up blindfolded in the center of Ivrea, by the left bank of the River Dora, on battle day, you would be immediately inebriated by the smell of thousands of crates of red juicy oranges, mixed with the pungent aroma of “Vin brulé”, hot red and spicy wine. You’d be rubbed by a thousand elbows moving in every direction, you’d step on horse poop but most of all on a carpet of crushed oranges sometimes a foot high. You’d hear the trotting of the horses that pull high carriages full of helmeted and armored warriors of the tyrant. You’d hear the revolutionary chants of their attackers, the populace of Ivrea. And the cries of jubilation when Violetta la Mugnaia (the miller) passes on a low carriage and throws yellow mimosa flowers and candies at the crowd.
Now remove your blindfold. The first thing you’ll see is a maelstrom of red hats. Violetta and the crowd wear long, bright red, Phrygian hats symbolizing freedom. They come from far away. They’re called berretti di Frigia or berretti frigi, from the ancient area of Phrygia, in what is now Turkish Anatolia. They used to be worn by the worshipers of the sun. They were then worn, in ancient Rome, by emancipated slaves and finally became one of the symbols of the French Revolution: the red bonnet meant Liberté. When you walk around with a red hat in Ivrea, people say you’re wearing the berretto frigio and therefore you must be free to pass unharmed. The red hat means you won’t be throwing oranges and therefore no one will throw oranges at you. If you’re near the battle areas (even if you’re behind the protective nets) you’ll still get orange shrapnel, but no direct hits.
But if you really want to have fun, you must go into the battle areas, remove your hat and take part in the battle. The carriages with the hated representatives of the Emperor take turns entering the battle zones. They let the horses canter, but not for long, because soon they get surrounded by unhelmeted and unarmored orange-throwing multitudes in medieval costumes. The armored warriors on the high carriages respond in kind, by throwing hundreds of oranges at the mob below.
My American friends were ecstatic. A bit wary at first, they soon got into the crazy spirit of the festival and let their children in the battle zones together with mine, so they could throw oranges. Our job was to make sure they didn’t push their lucks: we allowed them four oranges per carriage, and didn’t let them get too close to the thick of it. Andreas, 10, summarized it beautifully: “of all the things I’ve seen in Italy this is the one I’ll remember forever, the most exciting one of all. What makes it so beautiful is that it makes absolutely no sense!”
The tricky part was the crossing of the Old Bridge area. That’s the most exhilarating war scene. The streets are narrow, the orange pulp piles up so high that every once in a while they have to come with snow-removing tractors to clear it. There’s only one narrow protective net in the center of the battle zone and so if you want to cross it (yesterday we did) with children you have to time it right. Until about fifty years ago it was really risky business, because they allowed to throw oranges from the windows too, which meant walking into a solid barrage of flying oranges, Phrygian hat or not. But now, in more civil times, the oranges fly strictly from the ground to the carriages and back. Everyone is really careful about not targeting red-bonneted “civilians”, but “collateral damages” do occur: while protecting our children we all received a number of direct hits, none too painful but very juicy for our clothes.
As you leave Ivrea look at the river: it carries tons of spent oranges back down south.
If You Go to Ivrea
Ivrea is easily reached by train from Torino. Since the streets are pretty clogged during the festival, the train is the best way to go. It takes 1-1.5 hours on the local train, which costs about 6 euro for a ticket.
If you take a camera be sure to wrap the body in plastic to protect it from the acidic and sticky orange juice.
For the schedule and more current information, see Historical Carnival of Ivrea, the English version of the official site for the festival.
The main part of the festival can be done on a day trip from Torino or other cities close by. Yet these kinds of festivals tend to have lots of things going on after dark as well, so you may wish to stay over in Ivrea. Reserve early. The box below will allow you to compare prices on lodging from several sites.