It’s the Sunday before Lent and I’m in Ivrea, a small town in Piedmont, at the foot of the Alps. The forecast predicts snow from Siberia, but right now the sun staves off the chill that I know will deepen with sunset. I stomp my feet while standing on frosty cobblestones waiting to buy a red jersey cap. Although flimsy, it will serve as a badge to show I’m a sympathetic bystander and protect me. In half an hour the streets will run red with the juice of tons of Calabrian blood oranges. Thousands of townspeople, divided into teams, will hurl fruit at each other, commemorating liberation—legend has it—from a medieval tyrant. This is the Battle of the Oranges, a three-day fight that takes place every year during Carnival. It starts on Sunday and terminates on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and I’m here to take photographs from the front lines.
According to the legend, in the Middle Ages, when a beautiful miller’s daughter—Violetta—married, a tyrannical lord insisted on exercising his right to spend the first night with her (le droit du seigneur). She gave him so much to drink that he passed out beforehand. Then she chopped off his head, the local populace rose to her defense and tore down the tyrant’s castle.
This act of rebellion is reenacted centuries later by the bare-headed populace (on foot) which battles the helmeted and armored tyrant’s supporters (on horse-drawn carts). They wage a sticky war through the various piazze and streets of town. At the end of the three days of combat, officials declare the winners of the battle. And during lulls in the fighting, a band plays, men, women and children in silken and golden costume parade through town and a Violetta stand-in rides a horse-drawn carriage through the fruity, fragrant mess, distributing candy and flowers.
Ivrea’s curious carnival celebration has evolved through the centuries. The battle with citrus as ammunition is a newer development, the origins of which are murky, but historians have dated its beginnings to the mid-nineteenth century. The fruit symbolizes sticks, stones and arrows; but while less deadly, oranges propelled with force still draw blood.
Read the rest of this essay, just published at Numéro Cinq magazine, HERE.