Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Look Back at Carnevale's End, and Ahead to Its Rebirth

A very entertaining pair of magicians perform on one of the side stages in Piazza San Marco

Reflections in a Golden Tuba: Alberto Azzolini of the group Brass Operà, whose regular weekday performances were one of the highlights of the main stage schedule and a crowd favorite

It's a little odd to hear your second-grade son going around the house reciting "from ashes he was born and to ashes he will return." And if you're a native English-speaking American it doesn't make it any less so that he's doing it in Italian ("dalla polvere era nato e di polvere è tornato").

Nor is its oddness diminished by the fact that he's simply repeating the final lines of a poem about Carnevale that he was instructed to memorize in school, written by Gabriele D'Annunzio. The very same D'Annunzio who, as Lucy Hughes-Hallet shows in her fine biography Gabriele D'Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War, used his proto-rock-star status to urge Italy into a war (WW I) it would have been better off remaining neutral in, and who reveled almost erotically in the pointless mass slaughter of the countless young men he inspired.

But, be that as it may, this is simply a filostrocca (or lullaby) about Carnevale, and it's certainly not unusual for children's songs to have some extremely dark undercurrents (such as the origins of "Ring Around the Rosy" in the London Plague of 1665).

Nonethless, I can't quite imagine that an American second grade class these days would teach the kids anything including lines about drinking so much wine that one's face suddenly turns red, but, then, I also can't imagine an American elementary school that would (as Sandro's school did) provide Prosecco for adults at the late morning reception following the kids' Christmas pageant. Whereas images of gluttony are common in both Italian and American culture--and treated as almost something of a requirement for the proper celebration of America's Thanksgiving.

Sandro, however, when I asked him about the poem, was very clear about the fact that all the eating and drinking and, eventually, dying, was done by Carnevale itself (or himself)--that is, by the personification of Carnevale (to use a word that he did not).

I wanted to ask him what was the relationship between this figure of Carnevale and actual people, but I could tell he'd already said all he wanted to say about the poem and he'd reply to any other question with a dismissive roll of his eyes. I suppose the figure of Carnevale, in this case, embodies the spirit of excess of Carnevale, but I can't imagine what this would mean to a second grader. No more than I can guess what he makes of the Ash Wednesday with which both the poem and Carnevale ends.

And, anyway, perhaps there's really no separating the "idea" or "meaning" of a poem from the images with which it is built up. At some point in poetry, if it is poetry (rather than prose broken into lines, or mere window dressing), there is a leap from the concrete accumulation of details to some sense intimately connected to them and inseparable from them but beyond them all. This sense (or variety of senses) dwells, first, in the details of the poem, then in us. Perhaps that's really the point in memorizing poems at all: because what we "learn from" a poem is in the poem, not something we can unpack from it and carry off in some skeletal or schematic form.

A poem is not the tool or means to learn something else--to learn its "message". It is, itself, what we learn. 

In any case, the poem is below, and in keeping with its cyclical theme this post is intended not only as a look back at the festivities that ended at midnight on Tuesday, but at the planning already underway for next year's events. And it also gives any of us interested in doing so, ample time to memorize it ourselves before next year's Carnevale.       
Carnevale vecchio e pazzo
S'è venduto il materasso
Per comprare pane e vino,
Taralucci e cotechino.
E mangiando a crepapelle
La montgna di frittelle
Gli è crescituo un gran pancione
Che somiglia ad un pallone.
Beve, beve all'improvviso
Gli diventa rosso il viso
Poi gli scoppia anche la pancia
mentre ancora mangia, mangia.
Così muore il Carnevale
E gli fanno il funerale:
Dalla Polvere era nato
E di polvere è tornato.
A quick translation:
Old and crazy Carnevale
Sold his mattress
To buy bread and wine,
Taralucci and sausage.
And eating to the point of bursting
A mountain of frittelle,
He grew a huge gut
Round as a big ball.
He drinks and drinks and suddenly
His face turns red,
Then his belly explodes,
Even as he continues to eat and eat.
And so dies Carnevale,
And is laid to rest:
From dust was he born
And to dust he is returned. 


  1. I can certainly relate to this, after pursuing a few fritelle: "Gli è crescituo un gran pancione"

    1. Well, as a good visitor, Yvonne, you sure wouldn't want to fly in the face of a venerable tradition, would you?