Even before Filippo Prior rides into the ancient piazza on the back of a horse-drawn carriage, he feels the giddy adrenalin rush of battle and the unnerving fear that comes with the knowledge that he and his teammates are about to get pelted with hundreds of cold, hard oranges.
“You hear the roar of the crowd, people screaming before you enter the piazza,” says Prior, a 21-year old member of the Cavalry of the Tricolore, a carriage team which competes in Italy’s annual Battle of the Oranges, a pre-Lenten carnival in Ivrea, near Turin. “It’s scary. You have a helmet but you can’t see anything because oranges are flying at you from all angles.”
The Battaglia delle Arance is a three-day orgy of orange-throwing insanity that is part of an ancient six-day carnival that attracts some 100,000 spectators and 4,000 participants to the small northern Italian city of Ivrea each February. The event, which begins today, appears to be unregulated mayhem but it’s actually highly structured and has deep historical significance.
The carnival commemorates a 12th century rebellion that was sparked by Violletta, a commoner who cut off the head of a tyrannical lord who tried to enforce the custom of taking her virginity on her wedding night. For centuries, carnivals-goers in the town threw beans at each other because feudal lords used to bestow two pots of them per year on poor people in the town. The bean-throwing was meant to signify their disdain for the handouts, but was also good fun.
But in the mid-nineteenth century, the tradition gradually changed as young women adopted the custom of standing on balconies and pelting boys they fancied from above with oranges. If the boys liked their attacker, they returned fire. These days, the city trucks in 57,000 crates, or 400 tons worth of oranges from Southern Italy that would otherwise be thrown away for use in the battle.
Dozens of carriage teams on horse-drawn carts, signifying the tyrant’s guards, compete against nine “foot” teams, representing the rebellious commoners. The carriage players are completely surrounded and outnumbered, so these participants have to be either very brave, or very pazo (crazy), preferably both.
“On the wagon, you have only eight people and you are throwing oranges against 400-500 people at a time- you are completely under siege,” says Prior, an Ivrea native who has been competing in the battle since he was 12. “You get hit everywhere- on the helmet, the arms, the chest, your hands.”
According to Prior, each carriage player competes for just one of the three days in the battle due the vicious nature of the combat.
“The next day your arms are purple- completely covered in bruises from getting hit so many times,” he says. “There is no way you could do all three days.”
The local authorities set up first aid tents around the five piazzas used for the event, each one is “defended” by a different foot team. The organizers say that no one has ever suffered a severe injury and some view getting a black eye or a bruise on the face as a badge of courage. Spectators wear red berets to signify themselves as non-combatants but still get hit with stray fire. The splattered oranges and horse droppings create a colossal mess that’s eventually cleaned up by a team of 100 workers.
On Fat Tuesday, a team of judges give awards to the foot and carriage teams based upon their throwing ability, costumes and adherence to rules, such as not hitting the horses with oranges. The festival concludes with a huge procession, which culminates with a likeness of a sword-weilding Violetta presiding over a burning scarlo, a pole covered in heather and juniper bushes. The crowd goes wild, cheering for the scarlo to burn as quickly as possible. A quick burn is an omen that the coming year will be a good one; a slow burn means trouble is on the way.
The teams have been together for decades, but foreign visitors are welcome to join if they pay a registration fee. But Prior has a word of advice for newcomers.
“Definitely wear old clothes and shoes, because all your things will be ruined.”