Carnival King of Europe

Giovanni Kezich

Director, Trentino Folklife Museum

Trentino Folklife Museum

Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina via Mach 2 I-38010 San Michele all’Adige Italy

San Michele all'Adige, Italy

EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Research 2017


The United Europe of Carnivals




"Carnival King of Europe" is an active partnership of ethnographic museums aimed at the uncovering of the common roots of European folk masquerades, as they can still be observed in hundreds of different localities throughout the continental space, from Halloween to the onset of Spring. Starting some twelve years ago in 2007, at the Trentino Folklife Museum (Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina), with an initial agreement drawn up with the museums of Zagreb (Croatia), Skopje (Northern Macedonia), Sofia (Bulgaria) and Marseille (France), the project summoned a durable team of motivated museum professionals, launching a first round of fieldwork excursions, focused on shooting a documentary and collecting a wide range of exhibits (masks and costumes, literature and realia, photos and interviews) which were then exposed in an itinerant exhibition that proceeded from San Michele all'Adige in the Italian Eastern Alps, where the project had originated, to Zagreb, Sofia and Skopje. From 2010 to 2012, the project was joined by the museums of Bilbao (Euskadi), Warsaw (Poland), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Sibiu (Romania), whilst other field excursions were carried out in England, Switzerland and Austria. In this second phase, the exhibition, supported by an adequate catalogue in print, was extended to the new locations, including specific restitution activities to the local communities and educational programs directed to children. In its third phase, from 2013, "Carnival King of Europe" intensified its attention on the Italian peninsula, as well as on Sicily and Sardinia, and visited again Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia, with significant excursions also to Belgium and Greece. So far, about one hundred different European traditional masquerades have been documented within the scope of the project, and new contacts have been made with museums in Portugal, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Serbia, with a view to a full coverage of the continent of Europe, at least as far as the areas, nearly entirely confined to the double domain of unreformed Christendom, Catholic and Orthodox, where winter masked rituals are still commonly practiced.


In this perspective, however, some durable results have already been achieved by the project's film-makers, Italian, Polish, Slovene and Macedonian: in fact, the project's major film, "Carnival King of Europe 2.0" gained international acclaim in Kyoto 2009 (Gran Prix for Academic Film of the Kyoto University Museum), as well as in Moscow 2014, Cadca 2014, Bristol 2016, Yerevan 2016, whilst all the film production of the project, indexed on the site, is by now a major recognized Carnival resource distributed worldwide by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Also, all along the projectrs"s progress, which can be monitored step by step on the website, scientific seminars were promoted in various locations - Trento, Belgrade, Pecs, Florence, Binche, Gyumri, London, Paris - and a number of conferences were also attended to, as can be monitored through a conspicuous sequel of articles in print, which seems to have successfully spurred, in the light of the new findings, a revival of the comparative approach to European folk culture, which is that of James G. Frazer's Golden Bough (1915). In 2015, Carnevale Re d'Europa, a major award-winning tome, published the draft lines of a new overall interpretation of European winter masked rituals, as regards their origins, diffusion, symbolism and social significance, and in 2017 in Turku, Finland, crowning 10 years of activity, "Carnival King of Europe" was awarded the Europa Nostra Award for "Research".
So, after twelve years of filming, interviewing, exhibiting, researching, writing and lecturing, how can we summarize the scope and the results of this project?

As a natural heir to the medieval festivals of the ";world turned upside down", a time of revelry, misrule and excess finalized, with the protection of masks, to the lampooning of the standing social order, the concept of "carnival" has been constantly gaining grounds outside Catholic Europe where it was first concocted, and has by now become, both in Europe and beyond, an overarching festive format which everyone is capable to recognise and endorse.
In this context, "Carnival King of Europe"; opted for swimming upstream instead, forgetting about the parades of giant floats of Viareggio, Nice, Koeln;ln, Cadiz and many other European cities, which have to reinvent anew every year their satirical contents, to go back to the most remote roots of the Medieval carnival customs, which can still be observed in scores of small scale village rituals, dotted at the most remote corners of the continent, based on the yearly return of mummer-like characters who are specifically required to appear on the scene always equal to themselves.


Classed in just two or three distinct categories, these visiting mummers are horned and hairy at first, with heavy cowbells round their waist, then elegant and hieratic or almost military in attire, with pointed and ribboned cone caps, and finally ragged and beggarish as in a caricature of the village miseries: pauper peddlers, frenzied old women and assorted old jerks, the dancing bear and the hobby horse. Mysterious in their dramatic personas, these figures materialise out of the wilderness on a given day at the heart of wintertime and engage in a ritual roundabout of the village, at first scaring people away, then exacting alms in exchange for good wishes, and finally giving sway to some kind of burlesque apocalypse. But before that happens, in the mummers' quest from house to house, a restricted number of very specific rituals are performed as rather serious, restrained magical acts: a mock wedding ceremony, the ritual ploughing of the main square, the sawing of sawdust seeds, a collection of eggs, a free distribution of pancakes and fritters ... Throughout the European space, these simple rites are performed with identical modalities, with similar costumes, similar instruments, similar foods, within the very same dramatic sequence, as if some sort of hidden script was operating out there, the liturgy of a forlorn religion of agrarian magic which has been able to replicate itself since time immemorial, having seemingly survived in the most sheltered and remote pockets of the continent, in the Alpine valleys as well as in central Sardinia, or the infinite spaces of the Iberian or Balkan countryside.

As a result, we are confronted with the breathtaking evidence of some extant and very fundamental European unity, one that still cuts across deeply entrenched national, linguistic and religious boundaries, and goes back directly, with its all too evident roots in the confraternal religion of ancient Rome, to a time in which Europe was still a whole. Of this original unity of Europe, Carnival is possibly today a most obvious successful heir, as well as its natural crowned king, the only possible modern claimant in the millennial quest for the restoration of a united Europe: "Carnival King of Europe".



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