Celebrating Carnevale in the Italian Language
Thanks to my Catholic childhood, I could easily follow the Sunday mass in the tiny stone church of the Borgo Monte Vibiano Vecchio in Umbria. Then the white-haired priest began to preach in ever more impassioned tones about the evils of “i peccati della carne,” which I translated literally into “the sins of the meat.”
Had the Church reinstated its Friday ban on meat? Had the dreaded mucca pazza (mad cow) returned? I glanced at the dozen or so townspeople in attendance. Most were averting their eyes and looking embarrassed—or guilty. An Italian friend later explained why: “carne” also means flesh, and a sermon on the sins of the flesh could discomfit almost anyone.
For centuries the pre-Lent festivities of Carnevale sumptuously celebrated “carne” in every sense. However, the name comes specifically from the Latin for meat (carnem) and “take away or remove” (levare). A church decree dating back to 653 declared that anyone who ate meat during the forty days of Lent (Quaresima in Italian) could not receive communion on Easter. Charlemagne reportedly sentenced Lenten meat-eaters to death.
The prospect of long months without meat or merriment inspired Italians to gorge themselves throughout — and often long before – la settimana grassa (the fat week) before Ash Wednesday. It also inspired a luscious vocabulary for the culinary treats of this festive time, such as the delicate fried pastries we might call fritters. In Piedmont, they’re bugie (little lies); in Tuscany, cenci (rags); in Milan, chiacchiere (gossips); in Emilia-Romagna, lattughe (lettuce leaves). Cooks elsewhere may call them nastri delle suore (nuns’ ribbons), galani or sfrappe and add ingredients such as raisins and anise.
The sin-drenched Venetian Republic was famous for indulgences of carne in its more sensual sense. During Carnevale, which lasted for months, party-goers of all classes hid their identities behind elaborate maschere (masks).
Artisans known as mascherari gained fame for their exquisite creations, which came in three varieties. The bauta covered the entire face but had no mouth opening and a lot of gilding. The oval-shaped moretta was worn by women, often along with a veil. The full-face white larva (from the Latin for mask or ghost) was made of fine wax cloth.
Words and Expressions:
fare le frittelle –- literally, to make the fritters; to celebrate Carnival
carnevalone –- the four extra days of Carnevale celebrated in places like Milan
carnevalata –- Carnival revelry
A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale –- Anything goes at Carnival time.
L’amore di Carnevale muore in Quaresima –- a love that starts during Carnival dies in Lent.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language.
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