Sunday, March 1, 2015

Origins of the Nice Carnival

My friend Bruce B. inadvertently started me on a search about the history of the Carnival in Nice by mentioning the Mossa family, Alexis (father) and Gustav-Adolf,( son)and their huge contribution to the traditions of the  Nice Carnival, its publications and cartoons ( bandes dessinées) in and around 1873. 

That will be another interesting line of inquiry.  In the meantime I have uncovered some information regarding the origins of our Carnival. 

Scholars think that the word "carnival" comes from "carrus Navalis" or naval char ( a char is a parade float).  Others think that the name comes from "Carnelevar" having to do with the removal of meat (carne) and greasy foods from the diet before Lent. 

  In the middle ages the Carnival was the domain of churches then led by semi-pagan priests.   The churches of the time looked and acted like taverns.  Both sexes took part in obscene games without being labeled sinners.   Places of worship doubled as entertainment halls and places for parties to be held. 

The first trace of the Nice Carnival in the archives is from 1294 when Charles II of Anjou came to take part in the festivities of "drinking, fighting , ribaldry,  games and licentious behavior".  The mask was a popular accouterment for romping, aping and mocking the powerful and became part of the Carnival scene.

Excess was permitted and even encouraged by the Lords so that famine, oppressive taxes, and the diseases of leprosy, plague and cholera could be briefly forgotten.   There were special days for distributing flour to the masses.  The idea of the Lords was that once the Carnival effigies went up in flames at the end of the festival, everything would be better and hardship would be forgotten and the masses would be easier to govern. 

In the 16th century the churches tried to curb the power of the Carnival but the trustees of the city selected "abbés des Fous" ( the fools' abbots), citizens of the town, who were selected to maintain order and contain brawls and theft that were the inevitable results of inebriation and the anonymity of masks.   The nobility also, hidden and disguised, enjoyed the "slumming". 

In 1539 the trustees of the city decided that the social classes should mix more and each elected "abbot" would organize his own balls. But shortly after this time the selected abbots began considerable abuse of their powers over the less fortunate.  

Among those abuses were the "Pelota" "Charivari" and the "Hullabaloo"
The pelota was a tax levied against young brides if they left or entered the city limits.   The husband had to warn the "abbots" three days before he and his wife were to travel.  If the husband paid the fee for the class of his wife the couple was entitled to an escort and entertainment.  If he refused to pay the selected officials,  the young bride was sequestered by the disreputable "abbots"... (especially if he found the wife to his liking).     Some of the husbands were subject to an exaggerated tax if the abbots fancied the wife and some were just too poor to pay.  

The Charivari was another corrupt fee charged by the officials.   It applied in cases of a widower or widow who wanted to remarry.  If the spouse did not pay this tax, they were subjected to a serenade as a first warning....then a "hullabaloo" if they still refused.   The poor debtor was barricaded in his home and the crowd used horns, trumpets, broken pots and other utensils to make a scene or Hullabaloo.  

In the 18th century this custom degenerated to the point that the Marquis Foschieri issued a proclamation banning "pelota and charivari" altogether.  

Carnival "battles".
As a tribute to the Sardinian monarchy,  Nice started the first parades and street battles.  These marked the "people's" return to the street since they were excluded from the fancy private balls going on with the rich, winter visitors to Nice at the end of the 18th century.   At first only flowers, cigars, sweets and confetti were thrown to the crowds.  This was the beginning of what is now called " Le Bataille des Fleurs" where flowers are thrown to the stands.  

It is in the 19th century when we start to see more "carts" in the streets and occupants of windows or terraces throwing items to/at the crowd.   People of all classes take to the streets for these joyful battles of throwing all manner of things.  

The first parades formerly took place on the Cours Saleya and the Rue Saint Francis of Paola.  The rich occupied the terraces and best positions up above the crowd. 
"The ideal place for watching the battles was Visconti terrace. On the edge of the terrace were a long lines of boxes of grapes" ( for throwing), a visitor reports.  "Behind them are positioned the most distinguished men of Europe reverting to being kids"....she claims.... (throwing things down on the crowd below).  

If some wealthy winter tourists still threw cigars and candy,  the less affluent replaced that with confetti made of candy sugar and plaster. The poorest citizens threw spoiled flour, rotten oranges, eggs, soot etc.  

 To go out during Carnival battles you needed a "dust cover" or domino over one's clothes, a mesh mask like fencers wear and/or a large umbrella. 

Today marks the last day of the Carnival 2015.  They will undoubtedly "burn the king" char tonight and then Nice will have its Carnival fireworks display to mark the end of Carnival for another year.

  I am starting to have a fondness for this rich history of Nice Carnival.   In fact,  I am beginning to see the fun of throwing things, at least symbolically.   And I have also noticed that every single one of my male neighbors has a tradition of bonfires.  Is this also a spillover tradition from Carnival?    I wonder.  

1 comment:

  1. Hi there! I loved your history of carnaval blog post... I have tried to find a good history on it and frankly I learned more from yours than any other! Thank you!