Ivrea’s colorful carnival: The ‘Battle of the Oranges’

Mariella Radaelli

What would inspire people to book trips to Ivrea?

The small city near Turin is not just your next obscure travel destination. It is an absolutely must-visit stop in the carnival season, when its distinct identity takes shape as the exciting Battle of the Oranges roars.

Hotel Tyrol in Val Gardena
Nine teams engage in the battle, with others riding in carts who represent the tyrant’s men.

Oppressed peasants in the Middle Ages likely dreamed of throwing stones and pitchforks at their tyrannical lord and his foreboding palace – and sometimes actually did it.

At least that’s the legend behind the Battle of the Oranges held in the Piedmont town where each year tens of thousands of residents and visitors cast tons of citrus fruit, not stones. It has evolved into a colorful, famous festival held each year on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday preceding Lent.

Tradition says the carnival commemorates the town’s 12th-century defiance against a tyrant, variously identified as a member of the Ranieri family or the Marquis William VII of Montferrat.

The tale says the tyrant attempted to force his right of “droit du seigneur” — the privilege of bedding every bride on the eve of her wedding — on an unwilling young maiden. According to tradition, she was the miller’s daughter (la figlia del mugnaio), and instead of acquiescing, she killed the evil lord and villagers stormed his palace. Each year for the festival, a young girl is chosen to play the part of Violetta, the heroic young woman.

After Napoleon’s occupation of Ivrea in the early 19th century, the local carnival gained an element of anti-French sentiment: the festival took on new meaning as civil disobedience against Napoleon’s troops. In that narrative, oranges are used to battle French occupiers, not a tyrannical lord.

Whatever festival’s origins, at one time beans were thrown to represent stones, then later it was apples. Sometime in the 19th century the missiles became oranges.

The use of oranges is also not well understood because citrus fruit does not grow in the foothills of the Italian Alps, so it must be imported from Sicily. About 30 tons of aging oranges are shipped in for each festival. According to the English-language website of the Italian National Tourist Board, the Ivrea festival “is one of the most particular in the world”. The UK’s Guardian newspaper has named it the second-most intriguing carnival this year.

The miller’s daughter leads a festival procession with a general at her side who guarantees the correct proceedings. Other elements include a man posing as the Magnifico Podestà (or guarantor of the city’s freedom) and a parade of parish flags. The historical reenactment of rebellion against tyranny culminates with the Battle of the Oranges.

Nine teams engage in the battle, with others riding in carts who represent the tyrant’s men. Squads of aranceri on foot defend their piazzas from those in carts who throw oranges representing arrows. Through the streets, the miller’s daughter and her cortège distribute sweets and presents to spectators. The procession through Ivrea’s streets includes floats, and folk and musical groups that come from across Italy and even Europe.

Battle of the Oranges
You should wear the “berretto frigio”, a red floppy cap, if you don't want to get hit.

The battle itself is no delicate matter of simply tossing around fruit. It can get so aggressive that some years more than 100 participants are injured and require medical care. Those in carts representing the dark forces wear medieval-looking protective headgear and thick clothing to help protect them from the onslaught of enraged villagers who greatly outnumber them.

But there are a few rules. You are not permitted to throw an orange at a horse and you should wear the “berretto frigio”, a red floppy cap, if you don't want to get hit. The red cap symbolizes participation in revolt and aspiration to freedom like French Revolution. So let’s all wear it.

The battle will start on Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. and continue through Tuesday 28, the “Martedì grasso”.

Fagioli grassi is a traditional dish served along the streets: sausages and beans cooked in cauldrons over wood fires for 24 hours. You take along your pot and fill it up. Great local wines such as Barbera, Barolo and Dolcetto are worth a try in osterias.

Ivrea is located in the heart of the Canavese area, a bridging point and intersection between Piedmont’s major cities and the Valle d’Aosta region. Canavese valleys are home to Gran Paradiso National Park, which inspired Provencal troubadours with its gentle hills interwoven with vineyards and orchards.

Founded by the Celts, the town became a significant Roman outpost in 100 BC built to guard traditional invasion routes into northern Italy over the Alps. Its Latin name was Eporedia.

During the 20th century Ivrea’s primary claim to fame was as the base of operations for Olivetti, manufacturer of the iconic typewriters.

Today it can be a hard place to live. It feels like local folks have not been able to recover from the decline of Olivetti.

An imposing castle continues to look over the town instead, giving it a majestic appearance. The “Castello dalle rosse torri”, as poet Giosuè Carducci named it, was erected in 1358 by a forceful medieval leader nicknamed the Green Count, Amedeus IV, Count of Savoy.