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.
Hence this lightweight red hat—a stocking cap—which I’ve now bought and am wearing. It’s a Phrygian cap, modeled on the headgear that inhabitants of Phrygia (Anatolia) wore in antiquity. It came to be associated with liberty in the Western regions of the Roman Empire and many centuries later French revolutionaries adopted it. During the reign of Terror, French moderates wore this “bonnet rouge” to advertise their sympathy with the new regime.
And, in the United States, some revolutionary soldiers wore knitted red stocking caps and images of Liberty often included a Phrygian cap. (See: French National Symbols.)
In Rip Van Winkle (1820) for example, Washington Irving describes Rip’s great surprise upon awakening in post-Revolutionary war America with red cap imagery:
“Instead of the great tree that used to shelter the quiet, little Dutch inn of yore there was now reared a tall, naked pole with something on the top that looked like a red night-cap and from it was fluttering a flag on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes.”
(Washington Irving, Rip Van Winkle, Philadelphia: David McKay Company, 1921, p. 56. Pictures and Decorations by N.C. Wyeth.)
Red-capped, camera poised, I’m in good company here, on this old bridge over an icy tributary to the Po River. I’m waiting for the oranges to begin flying. Hundreds of us revolutionary sympathizers jostle each other expectantly, vying for a good spot from which to take pictures. The battle is scheduled to begin at 2 pm and it’s already 2:08. A tv journalist from Norway knocks into me with her plastic-swathed equipment and my camera clatters against the cobblestones, the lens jarring loose. Her bodyguard, a burly local hired to shield her literally with his body from oranges while she shoots, apologizes. No problem, I say, biting my lip. Next to these professionals I feel exposed and unprepared. What if I get orange juice on my equipment? When I ask if they have any extra plastic, the bodyguard hands me a Carrefour supermarket bag. I rip a hole in an end and swaddle my camera with it.
Someone blows a whistle. A group intones words from Ivrea’s traditional carnival song:
“Once upon a time,
A cruel baron
With the rope and the stick
Up at his lair, the castle,
Devoured us, meat and bones ….”
And on the bridge in front, men and boys in kilts and green jackets from the Tuchini di Borghetto faction stuff oranges into cloth shoulder bags. They hop with excitement. Around the bend, behind me, warriors in carts drawn by skittish horses, don their terrifying, football-like helmets.
The first cart surges forward, its black horses whinnying. Oranges sail and thump against the foot soldiers’ upturned faces and, in response, against the helmets of the adversaries above on the cart. Pulp flies through the air when oranges split. Rivulets of red run. The fighters pound each other, their zeal increasing, their accuracy decreasing. The Norwegian lady huddles under the big man she has hired to protect her from errant missiles, her lens peeping out from under his arm. I step away from them, out of the crowd to take a clear shot. Juice splatters when I’m hit in the head—right on my bright red Liberty cap—by a ricocheting orange. This badge offers no protection against the wildly spinning oranges. While I’m reeling, another slams my camera and the lens jars loose again. I struggle to put pieces back together, but oranges bounce off the pavement into my legs and arms. Fun and picturesque? Maybe, I think. But red cap or not, this reenactment hurts.
I step back from the fray into a doorway. I peel off the sticky Carrefour bag and fiddle with the camera. The digital circuitry seems out of whack. I turn the camera off and on, thinking of a Florentine Carnival song, Blessed Spirit (ca. 1513), by Niccolò Machiavelli, the author of The Prince:
Raise then, your weapons high
Against a cruel foe;
But to your own, bring healing remedy.
Lay down that old hostility
Fostered between you since long, long ago.
(Niccolò Machiavelli, Blessed Spirit. Revised Translation by Robert Adams. W.W. Norton & Company, 1992)
Since the Renaissance, carnival celebrations, this version in particular, are about contrast. I came here because I wanted to witness this spectacle, this bloody dramatization of fighting between polar opposites through which reconciliation can be reached. But I didn’t mean to ruin my equipment while doing it.
I stop at a bar and order an espresso. Still fiddling with the camera, I breathe a sigh of relief when the green and red LED lights turn back on.
I follow the show at a distance, down through the narrow passageways of the Borghetto. Then I wind up through other battle-filled squares and streets. Carpeted with peels and pulp, the cobblestones slide under my feet. The battered town reeks of bruised citrus that is already souring.
At the end of the gauntlet, on the loop heading back toward the bridge, combatants put aside their oranges for a few minutes. Men and women on the carts take off their helmets, lean down and shake hands with their adversaries, declaring a momentary truce before they circle around to battle again. A boy’s nose bleeds. A girl massages her shoulder. I mop my face and wipe my camera. And a man, on a cart I’ve photographed, maybe even one of the helmeted men I’ve photographed, quietly has a heart attack. He’s taken to the hospital where later—at age 35—he’s pronounced dead.
But I don’t know this quite yet. I’ll find out when I get home and listen to the news. Right now, while the sun sinks westward and the evening mist rolls in, I’m still red-hatted if damp with the blood-red juice of Calabrian oranges. The battle has started up again and I’m marveling at Ivrea’s rowdy pageantry that for me today continues to unfold.
–Natalia Sarkissian–Natalia Sarkissian
Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.