February in Italy is all about Carnevale (and the Sanremo Music Festival, but that’s another story). The festive season that precedes the 40 days of Quaresima in Catholic countries culminates on Giovedì Grasso and Martedì Grasso, the last Thursday and Tuesday before the beginning of Lent. Celebrations usually involve parades of floats with playful and imaginative elements. As the Carnival period is connected to Easter, its dates vary, but they usually fall between the beginning of February and March (this year, Fat Thursday falls on Feb. 23 and Fat Tuesday on February 28).
Bologna and Emilia-Romagna do not have famous Carnivals as those of Venice or Viareggio, but we hold our own. So if you happen to be in the area during this time, here are some of the top Carnival celebrations you should check out in the region.
Carnevale di Cento
Halfway between Bologna and Ferrara, Cento, nicknamed ‘the small Bologna’, hosts Emilia-Romagna’s most prestigious Carnival, having being twinned with the world-famous Carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Carnival celebrations here are thought to date back to at least the 1600s, when native painter Guercino depicted the typical festivities of the period in a 1615 fresco.
Celebrations take place on the five Sundays before Lent, with floats being paraded along Corso Guercino and on the piazza by the same name, accompanied by papier-mâché masked figures, costumed groups and music. Unique elements to Cento carnival are the gettito, the launching of inflatable and plush objects during the parade; and the burning of the local mask “Tasi” during the last parade, accompanied by spectacular fireworks.
Where and when: Cento is about 30 km from Bologna. 12-19-26 February, 5-12 March, from 2 pm to 6:30 pm.
Carnevale Rinascimentale di Ferrara
One of the Renaissance capitals of Italy, Unesco-inscribed Ferrara hosts a Renaissance Carnival that transports you back to the time when the city was ruled by the powerful Este dynasty.
The event is inspired by the arrival in town of Eleonora of Aragon, the first duchess of Ferrara, when she was greeted by a cheering population and a city adorned for the occasion with floral drapes and theatrical machines supporting the Sun, moon and planets meant to send positive vibes to the new wife of Duke Ercole d’Este.
People dressed in costumes from the 15th century, flag-wavers and jugglers, masked balls, sumptuous meals will animate the streets of Ferrara’s centro storico. The highlight will be on Saturday, February 25, when a parade in honor of Eleonora of Aragon will start at 4 pm at Palazzo Schifanoia and cross the historic heart of town until it reaches Piazza Municipale.
Where and When: Ferrara is about 50 km from Bologna. 23-26 February.
Carnevale di Comacchio
This is one of the most unique Carnival celebrations in Emilia-Romagna, taking place on water. Comacchio in fact is built on 13 islets connected by bridges (does that remind you of a bigger, more famous city?). Costumed groups and boats will parade along the streets and canals, beginning at the monumental bridge of Trepponti, symbol of the lagoon city. This is an especially kid-friendly carnival, with lots of children entertainment, confetti and little toys giveaways, and stands with typical Carnival sweets and hot drinks. Masked children from a local school will also parade.
Where and When: Comacchio is about 90 km from Bologna (1 hour 15 minutes by car). 19-26 February, from 10 am.
Carnevale di Busseto
The name it goes by, Gran Carnevale della Risata (Grand Carnival of Laughter), should alone inspire a Carnival visit to this small town in the province of Parma, where legendary opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, born nearby in Roncole, studied music.
The Carnival of Busseto began in 1879, and consists of a parade of allegorical floats that usually refer to current events and political figures. The floats are prepared months in advance by the volunteers of the association Amici della Cartapesta di Busseto (Friends of Papier-Mache) who use all kinds of recycled materials.
It is also known as the most ‘musical’ carnival because many local bands come to perform.
Parades begin at 2 pm and continue until the evening for four Sundays between February and March.
Where and When: Busseto is about 130 km from Bologna. 12-19-26 February, 5 March.
Carnevale dei Fantaveicoli
It is in a city associated with cars – Imola – that the most environmental-friendly carnival of all takes place. The parade here is composed of bizarre-looking vehicles, some real artworks of engineering, that must have just one requirement: being 100% eco-friendly. Moved by the wind or other kinds of clean energy, and/or pedals, colorful and original vehicles made with all kinds of materials will begin their parade at the famous auto racing circuit Autodromo Dino e Enzo Ferrari for the amusement of locals and tourists alike, during an event that traces its origins to the 18th century.
Where and When: Imola is 40 km from Bologna. February 26.
Have you ever attended a Carnival celebration in Emilia-Romagna?