I imagine that just mentioning the word 'carnival' in this region conjures up images of the magic and colours of Venice Carnival. Famous the world over, with its distinctive masks, Carnival on the lagoon is not the only event in the run-up to Lent to boast such a deep-rooted and much-loved tradition. One of the oldest carnivals in Europe is the Verona Carnival, known as Bacanal del Gnoco.
A festival with ancient origins
To get an understanding of the roots of Verona Carnival, we need to step back in time, specifically to the 16th century, when Verona was suffering from a terrible famine as a result of a series of devastating floods and repeated raids by the armies of Emperor Charles V fighting against Lombardy. In these desperate times, the bakers had increased their prices for bread and, since many people did not have money to buy it and could not produce it themselves, the people decided to blockade the bakeries.
As happened many times through history, hunger caused an uprising among the population of Verona, notably in San Zeno on 18 June 1531 when the bakery was raided for bread and grain.
The charity of some citizens, who supplied the poorest residents of the neighbourhood out of their own pockets, meant that disaster was averted, quelling the revolt. According to tradition, the charitable citizens included doctor Tommaso Da Vico, now officially recognised as the founder of Bacanal del Gnoco, who kept the custom going by stipulating in his will that bread, wine, butter, flour and cheese should be distributed every year to the people of San Zeno.
Bread for all!
These are many theories about the origins of Carnival in Verona. 19th century historian Giambattista Da Persico believes that the Festival of “Venardì Gnocolàr” (or Gnocchi Friday) dates back to 1405 when the city was conquered by the Republic of Venice. The historian Zagata recounts the story of Verona’s "Devotion to Venice"
When the city’s ambassadors travelled to meet the Doge and pledge their allegiance to the Republic. On their return, they paraded a banner donated by the Doge on the Carroccio, a richly decorated wagon that was a symbol of the city in wartime..
This allegorical wagon, the Wagon of Plenty, seems to have been a reference to the Venetian wagon, in the same way that the huge flag alluded to the Venetian standard. Since Verona was subsequently struck by famine in 1406, it seems very plausible that the new government would have wanted to gain popularity from citizens by founding the Festival of Plenty, with donations of food and using the might of the Republic which a few months previously had marched triumphantly through the city.
Another theory places the origins in the even older “Festival of all People” set up in 1208 by Ezzelino da Romano to mark the victory of the Ghibellines over the Guelphs in their battle for control of northern Italy, whilst others say it dates back to the time of Cangrade della Scala who, to commemorate Saint Zeno, would hold a great fair in the courtyard of the Basilica every May, featuring singing, dancing and much merry-making.
The Papà del Gnoco, the king of the festival
Verona Carnival was suspended from 1900 to 1923 but following its restoration by students it has become a much-loved holiday in the city and since 1949 the king of the festival has been Papà del Gnoco. In the historic district of San Zeno, Papà del Gnoco is portrayed as an old man, with a ruddy face and a long white beard, dressed in brown with a red cape and top hat decorated with bells.
‘Father Dumpling’, as his name translates, is traditionally elected by the residents of San Zeno. The king of the festival grasps his sceptre, which is a large gnocchi impaled on a giant golden fork, and travels on a mule, handing out sweets to children and portions of gnocchi with tomato or meat sauce to adults, helped by his servants.
In Verona and the surrounding region it is still traditional on the last Friday before Lent to eat a lunch of home-made gnocchi. If you are in Verona in the final week of Carnival, don’t miss the opportunity to try our traditional gnocchi and soak up the festive atmosphere in the city. During this time, it is impossible to resist all of the pastries baked for the festival: fritters and galani (thin pieces of fried batter) are two sweet treats you have to try when in Verona.