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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Cover My Treks: The Viareggio Carnival

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Graphic by Alice Fang

It was a carnival, a trance, an extravagant nightmare. Welcome to Viareggio Carnival 2024.

As we stepped outside baggage storage, a lunch table surrounded by a family of dining clowns with faces powdered in white and cheeks dotted with blush immediately gave away that Koloris and I were underdressed. Fresh off the train from Genoa in the early afternoon, we proceeded closer to the seaside of this small town called Viareggio in Northern Italy.

It was Halloween in broad daylight. Thousands of people, old and young, gathered on the shore in the most diverse selection of costumes, from the god of wine, Dionysus, to TicTacs, from dinosaurs to possessed nuns. Not knowing anything about this Carnival, saying we were confused would be an understatement, but we didn’t question it. Quickly coloring our faces with clown-like makeup using lipsticks, we joined the huge crowd as we headed toward the parade in the distance.

Before this Carnival, the only parade I’d been to was the one at Disneyland when I was ten, where the joyous waving of Mickey Mouse with other characters dancing around shaped my definition of all parades. But what I saw in Viareggio was like if the Disneyland parade learned to do theatrical makeup, joined Cirque Du Soleil and got high on shrooms. 

Each float rolled down the road led by almost a hundred performers dressed in themed outfits, dancing and leading the float, all caught up in their assigned roles. With suspenseful music, the performers preceding the Dalí-themed float wore hats topped with disproportionately big eyeballs and dangling hotdog-like tubes. They waddled down the street tossing paper confetti. The sculpted head of Salvador Dalí had his signature upward mustache in blue, protruding eyes, with his neck reaching out of a giant golden picture frame, all in front of a background of rolling mechanical eyeballs peeking from the curtains. Under Dalí’s head was a line of clown dancers wearing black ballet tutus, raising and turning their yoga-ball-sized eyeballs in sync.

But the float that lingered in my mind was the one that followed. I could hear the performers’ whimsical “Woo…” before I saw a sea of people dressed in off-white gowns, collectively turning around as they cheered. Drawn first to its background music, “Carousel of Life” from the movie “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004), I was captivated by a 13-foot tall blue papier-mâché horse that hung wire-flying acrobats dressed in the same gowns. The horse was flanked by rose bushes decorated with giant butterflies, among which gowned actors danced. It was eerily beautiful.

The overwhelming aesthetics of each float overtook my being. Standing in a crowd where everyone pretended to be someone or something else, I felt a whole new kind of freedom. By the end, I didn’t know where the parade ended and the audience began, and where the Carnival ended and reality resumed.

Sometimes reality can shock you.

After picking out all the confetti tangled in my hair, I looked up the floats’ meanings. The Blue Horse float was based on a true story of a mental asylum where the patients created a papier-mâché horse in 1973. Then, the pieces started coming together. Though I hadn’t realized it in the moment, the off-white gowns symbolized straitjackets used to restrain patients. The dancers and acrobats dressed in straitjackets could be interpreted as patients frolicking in their imagined freedom. The float portrayed an illusion that sought to humanize a marginalized population usually tucked away from public view.

The rest of the floats all carried allegorical or satirical meanings that commented on political, social and psychological landscapes.

Wiping my clown makeup off of my face, I suddenly understood. The Viareggio Carnival was a wake-up call under a dreamy disguise.