But why? For what oranges? Why throw oranges? For what?
More or less eight centuries ago, the current Ivrea was governed by a despot, the Marquis Ranieri di Biandrate. The marquis was contemptible, miserly and cruel. He usually abducted peasant women on their wedding nights and raped them. One night, however – according to a hodgepodge of history and legend – a miller’s daughter named Violetta managed to fight him off. Soon, she appeared at the window of the tyrant’s castle by firelight, holding her decapitated head in one hand. A revolt broke out – instantly. Violetta’s defiance prompted the populace to burn down the palace, freeing themselves to do as they pleased. And what they liked, apparently, was tossing each other oranges every year for three days in a row.
Kind of. I skip over 30 generations of local history as the tradition grew more complex and evolved, before taking on its current form in the years following World War II. Initially, in the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of Ivrea threw beans at each other. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that they first weaponized oranges, assimilating another local tradition that girls on balconies threw oranges at boys they liked. But whatever the foodstuff, the idea has always been to simultaneously commemorate the Ivrea rebellion and celebrate the freedom it brought; the beefy warriors on the cars are replacements for the Marquess’s feudal army, while the arancieri on foot, which chase them again and again from places, represent the unleashed population. At some point, the tradition also merged with the traditional celebration of Carnival, which allows for equally rampant raucousness and heavy drinking in the days leading up to Lent. So, to sum it up: it’s a live role-playing game. It’s a historical re-enactment. It’s Mardi Gras in Colonial Williamsburg with head injuries and fruit.
In fact, the orange throwing is just the most eye-catching ritual in a host of ancillary carnival traditions in Ivrea. The whole program begins several weeks earlier, with a ceremonial parade in early January, then continues with one meticulously prescribed rite after another, such as a gathering of 10 children summoned “on the Saturday before the penultimate Sunday before the Carnival”. I struggled to keep up with the intricacy of Dungeons & Dragons, even what was happening while I was in town: the 11 distinct bean parties; a ceremony in which a newly married couple in each of Ivrea’s neighborhoods digs a hole; the 30-foot poles covered in dried heather and juniper which are placed in the center of certain plazas and ignited into frightening pillars of flame. (“You don’t explain carnival,” a woman told me. “You live it.”) I just knew, every morning, to put on my berretto fridge – a long red cap that spectators must wear at all times during the carnival inside the city walls of Ivrea. THE berretto fridge identifies you as a supporter of self-determination and freedom. Walk without berretto fridgeand the arancieri can attack. “You will be targeted,” I overheard one of the Carnival organizers warn a reporter who had arrived wearing an elegant red headband instead of a hat.