Battaglia Delle Arance

Hello Ivrea, on the foot of the Italian Alps, where every year Carnival is celebrated with the Battle of the Oranges. For three days, locals paint the town orange: teams on foot and on horse-drawn carts fight until the last orange is thrown. Wasteful? Dangerous? Join in, and see for yourself.Catch

 

All I can see is a flash of orange, then I am hit in the chest. It knocks my breath away. I slide backwards, fall bum-first in a pile of orange mush. What the heck? I touch my head: my red hat is still there.

During Carnival, official public notices are plastered on the walls around Ivrea, ordering people, especially tourists, to wear a red hat. Or else they can be considered a ‘fair target for gentle and moderate orange-throwing’.

The red hat people are ordered to wear is not just any hat. The berretto frigio, a sock-shaped hat sold on every street corner, is the symbol of the carnival itself. It is a symbol of freedom; worn in Roman times by freed slaves, during the Middle Ages it was on the heads of peasants rioting against feudal lords.

Back on my feet, I make sure my hat is on, and visible. I want to get another look, but  soon I am hit again. On my forehead. My head jerks back, I wipe my face, oh my goodness, it’s blood! I am going to need stitches, maybe it’s a concussion?

Then I remember blood oranges.

Shivering from the quick succession of shock and relief, I retreat to the back of the square, away from any flying fruit. This is the first of three yearly battles; everybody is fresh and excited from a year-long wait. Nine teams of aranceri (orange-throwers) on foot, wearing uniforms, hurl oranges at their opponents on horse-drawn carriages, clad in Doctor Whoesque costumes with padded shoulders and leather-covered cylindrical helmets. An hour into the battle, the square is covered in a thick sludge, mixture of orange pulp and horse manure. It smells sharp, sweet-and-sour.

Aranceri on foot rush back and forth, to the sides of the square stacked with orange crates, filling their shoulder bags and baggy tops. As soon as a cart approaches, they charge, bombarding it with oranges. Horses halt, for a few minutes; oranges explode, then the cart takes off again, the aranceri chase it for a while, hurling the last of their supplies. Aranceri on foot wear no protection; they walk around with their hair caked in orange bits, juice running down their faces. Some have broken noses, some clutch a side of their face, arms or ribs. They held their heads high, shouting their team’s war cries.

“This is the moment we wait for all year” says Silvia, holding an orange cut in half on her right eye. “I’ll be happy to have a black eye tomorrow.”

She sits with me, sipping a glass of mulled wine. “I think carnival is good for our psychological health. During these three days I can let it all out, all the frustrations I have built up during the year. After I feel refreshed. Of course, accidents happen” she adds, pushing the orange on her swollen eye. “But you should try, it’s good for you”.

I am curious to know what it feels, I admit. I keep thinking I am wearing a hat, and the public not supposed to join in the battle. Even so, that doesn’t seem to stop hat-wearers from throwing the occasional orange. To prevent further trouble, volunteers advise the public to stay behind protective nets.

“Forget the nets” says Massi, an arancere of the Morte team, with a gigantic skull on the back of his orange-stained uniform. “If you want to live the carnival, you have to be in the middle of the battle.”

“Aren’t you afraid of getting hurt?”Right At Ya

Massi laughs. “If you compare the risk to the rush you get, a black eye is a small price to pay.”

He fills his top with oranges. A cart is approaching. “Come on, throw your red hat away and come with me”.

I am tempted, but I decline.

The carnival is the celebration of a medieval rebellion. Feudal lords had the right of sleeping with brides on their first wedding night. The beautiful miller Violetta promised her fiancé she would refuse to subdue. Alone with the lord in his chambers, Violetta extracted a dagger and beheaded him, then showed the head to the people standing around the castle walls. This event sparked a revolt; the castle was set on fire and the people marched victorious, led by their heroine. During the battle of the oranges, the aranceri on foot represent the people, the lord’s army are those on horse-drawn carriages, whose protections are supposed to be reminiscent of Medieval armours. Over the centuries, the legend changed time and time again, including dozens more historical characters from different epochs, but, as the locals say, the bottom line is one: revolution.

Why do people throw oranges? There is no official answer. The most likely theory defines the battle as an evolution of the 19th-century custom of throwing oranges, then considered an exotic fruit, to official parades as a sign of respect. How that became a battle, no-one knows. Nowadays, the battle draws to Ivrea hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Three thousand tonnes of oranges are thrown during the three days of Carnival. After the battle, they are processed into compost.

I run into Silvia again, as the battle is winding down. “You’ve got to have a go at throwing, it’s your last chance” she says, dragging me towards the crates. She hands me a shoulder bag, bulging with oranges. “Don’t worry, just throw.”

I stuff my red hat in my pocket, follow Silvia towards the approaching cart. All I can hear is the whomp of oranges crashing. I start throwing. At first I am careful, but the melee is such that I just get caught, I am hit in the head, chest, neck and stomach, but I don’t feel any pain. I feel light. It’s liberating. The atmosphere is charged; the masked characters become my frustrations, the people that made me angry during the years. The teacher who threw me out of high school. The boss who sacked me. The girl who stole my boyfriend. The government.

The bag is empty. I pick up handfuls of orange mush on the floor and keep throwing. Silvia pulls on my sleeve. “Calm down, the cart’s gone. So, what did I say? It’s good, isn’t it? I bet you’re coming back next year.”Going Solo

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Mamuthones and Issohadores

Kiddie in the Middle“I can’t let you in. I can’t just let anyone in. Sorry.” says Basilio, one of the eight issohadores of Mamoiada. “It is more than getting dressed. It is a metamorphosis”  he adds, as he slams the door of the Mamuthones and Issohadores Association in my face.

I am not allowed to enter the courtyard, where the preparation of the masked characters is taking place. I sneak towards a door left ajar, and glimpse moments of a century-old ritual, pervaded with superstition. The men, dressed but not yet masked, circle around a bonfire, lie on the floor, help each other strapping bells on their backs. The straps are pulled so tightly that some men seem to be about to collapse from the weight of the bells, up to 40

kilos, and lack of oxygen. Bells are arranged, straps buckled and unbuckled, crossed together. Men jump and shake their backs again and again, bells jangle. When the sound is right, the mask is worn. They are no longer men. They have become mamuthones.

The day of Sant’Antonio, January 17th, is one of the most popular festivals in Sardinia; the saint is the protector of animals and fire, and each year bonfires are lit to symbolise purification and renewal, to ward off the cold winter and welcome spring.

In the village of Mamoiada, the bonfires of Sant’Antonio offer a supernatural background to another event, a lot more important to local people; the first yearly procession of mamuthones and issohadores, masked characters unique to the town. Smoke billows in twirls from the fires, a sleety rain falls, interspersed with bright spells; then a double-arched rainbow appears, crossing the mountainous expanse east of town.

Many Sardinians will tell you Sardinia is not Italy. Here, people speak another language, completely unintelligible to Italian speakers; some refer to Italy as ‘the continent’, with a mixture of indifference and contempt. Barbagia is another place altogether. Far from the beaches of coastal Sardinia, Barbagia is a tough place of mountains and shepherds. The name of the region itself derives from Barbaria, barbarians, the name given by the Romans to the people of the land, proud and elusive, who never subjected to their rule.

I am no longer in Italy; I am in Barbagia. Mamoiada lies in the heart of the region, tucked among a mountain massif riddled with streams and caves, where nomadic shepherding is still practiced.

The village is surrounded by squat, windswept mountains, covered by gnarled olive trees and myrtle bushes. The wind blows, thick with sleet. This is an isolated land. A place where the harsh territory allowed people to preserve their culture, language and tradition.

Mamoiada’s masked characters are an example. Mamuthones wear grotesque wooden masks, painted black. They are all handmade by local artisans, all different to one another. Some have giant hooked noses, others have protruding foreheads, pointed chins and grimacing expressions, lending mamuthones a spooky, devilish appearance. They wear vests of dark sheep fur and huge copper bells, arranged like tortoise shells on their backs. Issohadores are their lighter counterpart, vivacious and cheerful; dressed in a red tunic with a black bandolier, an embroidered, fringed shawl tied around the hips, a black hat held together with a colourful bow.

When the characters reach the main bonfire, in front of Mamoiada’s largest church, the procession starts. Twelve ma

muthones in two rows, surrounded by eight issohadores. Their movement has been defined by anthropologists as a ‘danced procession’, because of the grave yet musical, rhythmical pace it follows. Mamuthones move slowly, with heavy steps, as if they were chained. Their backs are curved under the weight of the bells, under the coarse vests, under the grimacing masks. Rhythmically, they shake their right shoulder, the left foot advances, bells clang in unison. Issohadores move with agile, deft steps, surrounding the darker figures

as if they were hoarding them, guiding them, then confronting them. Their function is complementary; mamuthones do not interact with the crowd, while issohadores skip across the road, catching young women with the soha, the slim reed rope after which they are named. One issohadore, at the head of the group, has the function of setting the pace of the procession; every now and then he lifts one arm, then waves, the mamuthones answer shaking their bells three times, in rapid succession.

The public looks on speechless, silent and composed, as if they were assisting to a religious procession; looking scared, then between awe and bewilderment, hypnotised by the slow, yet imposing gait. There is no joy; the atmosphere wavers between austere and otherworldly. No one dares speak. The parade continues, from early afternoon to late night, repeating the dance at each of the thirty-eight bonfires in Mamoiada.

The origin of mamuthones is unknown. They have been in Mamoiada as long as anyone remembers; it is likely that the town itself has taken its name from them. Now, they are a symbol of Mamoiada’s identity. “We were born to be mamuthones” said Augusto, standing with his nine year-old son in a small mamuthone costume. “The first time, he was eighteen months old”.

The pace of mamuthones is seen by some scholars as an interpretation of the pre-Christian limping dance in honour of Dionysus, the god of vegetation, that each year died in winter, and was born again in spring as the grass in the fields, bringing rain and fertility. According to this theory, this is why the first mamuthones procession of the year is held on the day of Sant’Antonio, celebration of spring.

Other scholars see the Mamuthones as an animal metaphor; the bells on their back are the bond between shepherd and animal, their shared destiny of working in the fields, of roaming the mountains.

Mamuthones have also been defined as a representation of the collective soul of Sardinia. The bells symbolise the yoke of subsequent dominations, from the Romans to the Vandals, from the Piedmontese to the Italians. The cavorting issohadores in their exotic costume are the invaders; the shuffling mamuthones, bent under their load, are the Sardinians, prisoners, forever shaking the bells of their pain and suffering.

At the end of the parade, in the dead of night and bitter cold, the characters return to their association, to undress, become men again. Then the party begins, wine flowing until morning. This time, everybody is welcome to join in.

Shake It Up

For more Mamuthones and Issohadores images go to

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickmarghe/sets/72157632933743194/