Festivals and traditions

Carnival in Sicily

A journey through the different celebrations of the Sicilian Carnival.

Carnival is a lively festival that embodies the concept of “unlimited freedom and permissiveness”: Social distinctions dissolve, leaving room for masks, laughter and jokes. Disguise becomes an expedient for abandoning one’s everyday identity and transforming oneself freely.

Compared to other Italian festivals, it stands out by its deeply popular spirit, far distant from any celebration of a religious nature. For good reasons, the term “carnival” has its roots in the Latin “carnem levare”, which translates as “farewell to the flesh”, symbolising the last opportunity to indulge in carnal pleasures before the austerity of Lent.

Carnival in Sicily expresses the island’s ability to combine historical, cultural and folkloric elements in a lively and original way. Each town and village have its own interpretation of the carnival celebrations. Here are some of the most evocative ones:

 Carnival of Acireale

In the city of Acireale, located in the province of Catania, the origins of Carnival date back to spontaneous celebrations in which the citizens, emancipated from the constraints of their social classes, allowing themselves to mock the figures of authority, nobility and clergy. Emblematic was the appearance of the abbatazzu – also known as pueta minutizzu – a mask that mocked the clergy by displaying enormous books from which they recited improvised sermons, reflecting the perception of presumption and austerity attributed to the clergy.

Credits: Alfio Garozzo

At present, the Carnival harmonises with the Baroque architecture of Acireale’s historic centre. It is enriched by cultural exchanges with similar celebrations, having established a twinning with the Carnival of Viareggio and frequently welcoming typical Venetian masks. The festival culminates on Shrove Thursday with the majestic parades of papier-mâché floats depicting social satire and costumes, while Tuesday is dedicated to the flowered floats. The latter were introduced in 1931 as a simple means of getting around the city. They have since evolved into imposing structures decorated with hundreds of flowers, enhanced by moving mechanisms and illuminations that create fascinating representations. The ten-day festival is punctuated by various shows, peaking on Shrove Tuesday with the symbolic cremation of the Carnival King, followed by a grandiose fireworks display.

Credits: Alfio Garozzo

Carnival of Sciacca

The Carnival of Sciacca is considered one of the most famous and spectacular celebrations in Sicily, becoming a major tourist attraction capable of attracting thousands of visitors and actively involving the town’s inhabitants. The splendour of its allegorical floats has made it one of the most prestigious carnivals in Italy.

Considered the oldest in Sicily, its origins date back to the 1800s when the festival was also a time for culinary pleasures such as wine, sausages, macaroni with sauce and the famous cannoli di ricotta. In modern times, thanks to the contribution of architects, ceramists and sculptors, the allegorical floats have become works of art, majestic works that satirise the symbolic figures of our society.

The celebrations begin on Shrove Thursday with the official handing over the keys to the city to the symbolic mask “Peppe Nnappa“. They end with its burning, a symbolic event that, together with the destruction of whistles and hammers, marks the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent.

Carnival of Mezzojuso

Mezzojuso, about 40 km from Palermo, is a village founded in the 15th century by Albanian settlers. Its carnival is unique and culminates on the last Sunday with “Il Mastro di Campo”, an event involving the whole village, with about a hundred participants dressed in historical costumes who give life to a tragicomic performance.

The play is performed without words, through pantomime and with the Mastro di Campo as the central figure. This character, hidden behind a red mask, tries to win the affection of his queen. This tradition is not a purely local fantasy. Still, it is rooted in a popular representation from the 1700s, known as “L’Atto di Castello”, performed in Palermo during the carnival.

Source: Mezzojuso Ecotour – mezzojusoecotour.it

This event is apparently based on a real episode: the Count of Modica’s attack on the Steri Palace in Palermo in 1412 to force Queen Bianca of Navarre, widow of King Martin the Younger, to accept his marriage proposal. In Mezzojuso’s version, however, the story is reworked: unlike in the original, the Queen accepts Mastro di Campo and responds with love. The historical element is mixed with the addition of the Garibaldini, which further enriches the narrative.

Carnival of Palazzolo Acreide

The Carnival of Palazzolo Acreide, unlike the others, had also originally a religious dimension linked to the feast of the Madonna Odigitria. In this small town, the festival lasts for six consecutive days. Long processions of allegorical floats and typical local masks, such as the ”cuturri” and “i mantarri”, enliven the town’s streets. The roots of this festival go back to ancient times: women, called “ntuppatedde”, masked and wrapped in large cloaks, danced frantically during the procession in honour of the Madonna Odigitria. 

Today, the festival also includes an abundant feast of “cavatieddi“, a type of pasta served with sauce and sausage. The atmosphere is spontaneous joy and widespread participation among all the citizens: a unique festive experience in the province of Siracusa.

Carnival of Termini Imerese

Termini Imerese, near Palermo, is the scene of one of the most traditional carnivals.

At the beginning of the 19th century, some Neapolitan families, called “i Napuliti“, introduced the celebration and the first masked characters of “u Nannu ca’ Nanna“. The figure of the grandfather, plump and small, symbolises the carnival that ends on Shrove Tuesday, while his wife, a slender woman, represents Lent. Traditional events include the Burning of the Nannu and the Reading of the Will, an occasion to satirise public and political figures.
Although today’s carnival is characterised by glittering floats, eccentric costumes and lively music, the grandfather and grandmother remain the central figures of the festivities.

Source: Mezzojuso Eco Tour – mezzojusoecotour.it

As we conclude our journey through Sicily’s vibrant carnivals, it is clear how deeply rooted these festivities are in the island’s traditions and culture. Each carnival, from Mezzojuso to Acireale, offers a unique insight into Sicilian history and identity, mixing the sacred with the profane, the past with the present. These events are not just moments of pure celebration and entertainment; they are living expressions of the Sicilian cultural heritage, which is renewed yearly. It is an opportunity to take part in these extraordinary events, to immerse oneself in local traditions and to live the authentic experience of Carnival in Sicily, where every mask, every dance and every song has a story to tell.

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