Ivrea is a town in the province of Turin, Piedmont, well known for its folkloristic Carnival. Right before the spread of Coronavirus in Italy, I was lucky enough to attend one of the world’s oldest historic Carnivals – it dates back to 1808 – and be part of the weirdest Italian tradition: The Battle of the Oranges.
The Battle of the oranges is the core celebration of Ivrea’s Carnival and it takes place in the city’s main squares during the last three fat Carnival days. This unique event commemorates an episode from the Middle Ages, when the city was liberated from oppression, starvation and tyranny.
The Battle of the oranges: a bit of history
The protagonist of Ivrea Carnival is Violetta, a young girl called the Mugnaia Vezzosa, the miller’s daughter, who symbolizes freedom. According to the legend, Violetta was the heroine that killed the hated tyrant Marquis of Monferrato who not only was starving the city but also practicing a law – the jus primae noctis – that allowed a nobleman to deflower the wife of a commoner. On her wedding night, she chopped off his head and waved it triumphantly from the balcony. By doing so, she instigated a popular revolt.
It is to celebrate and recount this rebellion that Ivrea’s “Battle of the Oranges’ came into being. The battle, spectacular and violent, involves thousands of people and it is played between nine teams of aranceri (orange throwers) on foot, who represent the people who revolted, and the aranceri on horse drawn carts, who play the role of the feudal armies.
To avoid involvement in the battle, spectators can wear a red cap called the Berretto Frigio. People wearing it will not be considered part of the revolutionaries, and therefore will not have oranges thrown at them.
The Battle of the Oranges: our experience
As soon as we arrived, we headed straight to the stand selling red caps and gadgets, in order to buy a berretto frigio and enjoy the event without risking bumps and bruises. The entire town was in turmoil, getting ready for the core event of the Carnival. Dozens and dozens of people dressed in the color of their teams were wandering around sipping bombardinos, the Italian eggnog drink, and vin brulé (mulled wine).
We got there around lunchtime so that we could try the local street food in the food court set up just outside the city center. One particular food caught my attention: the miassa. It is a very thin corn flour pancake cooked over fire and filled with local salami and cheese. So yummy!
The event was about to start, we went to Piazza Credenza, where the first battle is usually staged, and we took place behind one of the large safety nets at the sides of the square. Players were warming up their muscles, filling their bags with oranges and singing local folksongs.
A persistent citrus scent was spreading in the air.
The announcer introduced carts as they came towards the piazza. Aranceri on foot were anxiously waiting for their enemies.
First cart enters.
Hundreds of orange bullets start bouncing here and there, smashing against the brightly colored uniforms. Every cart stayed in the square for a few minutes, and gave life to a veritable fruit war against the teams on foot, before heading to the following square.
After the battle, a thick mush made of orange pulp and horse manure covered the square. The nice and fresh citrus smell was quickly replaced by a nasty, acrid smell of rotten fruit and excrements. I looked around me and saw shiners and busted noses, blood and orange juice on most faces.
Still, the aranceri looked so happy and proud of the battle!
The battle of the oranges: Is it sustainable?
The Ivrea’s battle of the oranges is a peculiar event, well rooted in Piedmontese tradition, which I happily attended. I must admit though, I could not help thinking: what a waste! 600 tons of oranges ending up literally under your feet.
Then, I did some research and found out that 100% of the imported oranges are destined to be pulped, as they are not meant to be eaten or turned into edible products. A glance to the orange crates suffices to realize that most fruits are rotten and moldy.
Besides, the sludge covering the streets after the battle of the orange is collected with a snowplow, and brought to compost facilities to make organic fertilizer.
On Carnival during the Sunday, Monday, Tuesday preceding the Ash Wednesday. Starting time: around 2.15 pm.
The carriages follow two different routes: the internal route (Piazza Ottinetti and Piazza di Città) and the external route (Borghetto, Piazza del Rondolino, Lungo Dora and Piazza Freguglia).
The entrance costs10 euros on Sunday while Monday and Tuesday are free to attend. Before entering the event, visitors are required to leave potentially dangerous objects such as pepper spray, weapons, knives, but also selfie stick, body spray and thermos bottles.
Remember to buy a berretto frigio in order to stay safe during the event!
For further information, check the official website of The Ivrea’s Carnival.