The race of the Berbers and the Roman Carnival
The Roman Carnival is an historical tradition of the past. It was a very important public event in Rome, beginning eleven days before the Lent, when the Campidoglio's bell tolled. Its origins date back to the ancient times. At the beginning, the Carnival was a people's party in Rome and other Italian cities. Since the X century, on February, they used to play games and tournaments, in a free and funny atmosphere. Their intention was to celebrate the Roman Saturnalia, the religious festivities celebrated by rituals during which people used to wear masks, and banquets and sacrifices used to take place.
The Roman Carnival: a street public event along the lanes
At the beginning, the festivals were rare, and they took place in the area around Monte Testaccio and Piazza Navona. We'll tell you about the most important event, to let you understand the way they took place: the so called "Rustica dei portici".
Carts carrying pigs were thrown from the top of Monte Testaccio, while at the end of the descent, common people fought to catch them, alive or dead they were. Pope II then made the Roman Carnival a public show in the XV century. Internationally known event, the Carnival attracted noble people, artists, and travelers from all over Europe. The event - yearly ratified by an edict - became one of the trendiest events during the papal age, even more than the Venetian Carnival. On February, Rome was a step of the Grand Tour, until the XIX century.
The race of the Berbers, the central event of the Carnival
Pope Paolo II moved the location of the festival to Piazza Venezia, to celebrate his residence; in 1462, he introduced the Berbers race, now symbol of the Roman Carnival. It was a horse race among Berber horses, Arabian very muscular horses, with a wild character. The race was one mile long, from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia, along the current Via del Corso, then Via Lata.
The horses were gathered under the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo, pressed by the screaming crowd, agitated and steered by the Barbaries, the apprentices of the stable. At the start signal, the horses ran with no reins, in a crazy race. People used to go there in advance, to grab the best seats, so you can understand how important it was for them. Rich people used to sit on the buildings balconies or on the addicted tribunes, and the people had to stay on the Pincio' slopes. As in Piazza Venezia, a band showed the end of the race. The owner of the winning horse was awarded by a precious cloth, paid by the Jewish community - as for the race itself -, according to the Pope's order.
The effects of the race on the Roman Carnival
At the beginning, every day out of eight a race took place, and the horses were ridden by jockeys. Every day, a different "special" category took part to the race: children, old people, Jewish people got fattened, and people with physical disabilities or deformities made the show grotesque, making the audience laugh.
Clemente IX moved it into a horse without jockey race, as he considered it disgraceful. Despite of this change, the race was anyway dangerous, as the horses - nervous and excited - often used to get injured. The event definitely abolished by King Vittorio Emanuele II, in 1874, after an accident causing the death of a young boy. The race actually was too plebeian, and inappropriate for the city status. By its abolition, the Roman Carnival lost its main attraction, and in a few years, it disappeared, too.
Other events of the Roman Carnival
In addition to horse racing, there were parades inspired to the comedies: along Via Lata, people wearing costumes passed by launching flowers, sugared almonds, and confetti. They used to dance all over the night.
Even the religious men were allowed to wear costumes, but without being seen by their convents, and the nuns could too, but only their confessors clothes were admitted. On Fat Tuesday, the "Corsa dei Moccoletti" ended the celebrations: people ran along the street keeping their candle ends - the so called "moccoletto" - in the hands, trying to switch off the others. The idea of a people festival and the use of wearing costumes made an uncommon melt of peasants and noble people, usually well distinguished during the rest of the year. It seems the quantity of people and the expectations the festival had were connected to a less rigid application of the laws, especially concerning the religion ones.
Because of the transcendent atmosphere of those days, during the Carnival, the public executions in Piazza del Popolo were more numerous, becoming a character of the event itself. It was a politically delicate moment, as for the risk of rebellions, made easier by the masks, actually forbidden during the night for safety reasons.
The inheritance of the Roman Carnival
The Roman Carnival and the Berbers race have inspired several artists and writers, and the work "The Count of Monte Cristo", by Alexandre Dumas, is a very important historical documentation about it. The current aspects still existing nowadays about the Carnival are the parties and the parades, taking place in a more moderate way in Rome, than in other Italian cities. The memory of the Berbers race has been the inspiration for the creation of a race taking place along Via del Corso, nowadays.
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