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Batiston, the guy who pined for being the king of the La Spezia carnival. A brief history of the traditional mask.

Naples has Pulcinella, Venice has Pantalone and Colombina, Viareggio has Burlamacco, Bologna has Balanzone, Arlecchino is from Bergamo and Gianduia from Turin, Baciccia goes around Genoa and La Spezia? What is the typical mask of La Spezia? Starting from the assumption that in eastern Liguria the carnival does not seem to be as strong and well-established as in other areas of Italy, the figure that is closest to other Italian regional masks by characterization is Batiston.

Who is Batiston?

The figure of Batiston appears for the first time in 1869 in a song and in some signs of the time (where his name is reported as “Battiston”).

The poster of the celebrations of the Carnival in La Spezia of 1869

In what are the typical characters of Batiston it seems to recognize the popular adages concerning the inhabitants of the eastern Ligurian in general. Batiston is in fact a village figure, a typical true La Spezia, full of vigor, witty and pungent, who says “bread with bread and wine with wine” and is also called “Batiston er mugnon, er vogia de fae gnente” (Battistone the lamenter, the slacker).

Where does the Batiston come from?

Investigating the birth of the Batiston mask, the traces seem to lead to a man who really existed and known by the people.
In short, he was one of the many sogeti (characters) who have always lived in La Spezia and who has been elevated to myth. A widespread practice in small towns and typical of provincial towns, where extroverted or characteristic commoners are frequently known by all and are included in the daily or family lexicon, as an example, usually negative, or in any case not to be imitated.

Maìa, Batiston’s wife

Soon, Batiston is joined by another figure, Maià (Maria, in dialect), also a frank and nice woman, considered to be the daughter of King Carlevà (King Carnival) and wife of Batiston, who, by virtue of the wedding, becomes Carlevà’s son-in-law and finally new Emperor.
Since that time, we have often heard of “Batiston e sé mogé Maìa” (Batiston and his wife Maria), a fundamental step to elevate Batiston to the real protagonist of the carnival, closely linked to the spirit of the party.

La Spezia carnival before Batiston 

Before this wedding – therefore in the 50s of the nineteenth century – the La Spezia carnival was an engaging village festival (it must be remembered that before the construction of the Arsenale, which took place in 1862, the town of La Spezia had little consistency) with almost total participation.
The main figure was King Carlevà. In a parade in which the various districts participated with masks and floats, the mask of King Carlevà – on Shrove Tuesday – was conducted in parade with the sound accompaniment of satirical songs strictly in dialect and burned by the Marina.
Traditionally, the dying King Carlevà – hence before being burned – left a will to the citizens, initially only a list of objects, but later it became the “list of graces”, that is a series of advice for the population, then turned into a satire of costume. That’s it is the origin of the canzonetta.
When Batiston is already on the scene – at that point King Carlevà’s son-in-law – he is the one to read the king’s will to the people.

Photo of the Spezzino Carnival from the Facebook page of the Ethnographic Museum of La Spezia

Batiston’s canzonette

In a lunar of the time, there is traces of some songs from the late sixties of the nineteenth century that see a certain Batiston as the protagonist.
The first, signed by Serafino Pucci, goes like this

Cai me fanti, a son de Spèza
Er me nome i è Batiston
Batiston de Falabèla
Ch’i è nassù ‘nte a Sitadèla… 

(My dear boys, I’m from Spezia / my name is Batiston / Batiston di Falabela / who was born in the citadel)

Even if some claim Falabela is a neighboring locality (however today disappeared and not remembered), it is more likely that it is a dialectal expression that means “make it beautiful”, that is, “make trouble”, while certainly the Citadella is the oldest district of La Spezia.
The verses are written in a strict and genuine dialect; the small poem tells that Batiston returns home after spending many years in California and is saddened to see the suffering of some workers who, dirty and hungry, after work, rest lying on the ground, under the arcades of via Chiodo. From this description starts a commiseration towards those who sweat and who, as a reward, lead a life of beggars, and a decisive attack against the authorities is not spared:

Con che stèo, o signoi,
ch’angrassé ‘nte no fae gnente,
a mié ‘sti doloi
che bersègia a povea gente?…

(Who are you with, gentlemen, / who get fat in doing nothing / do you see these pains / that afflict poor people?)

It must be admitted that in 1866 it was not a trivial matter to express oneself with such bright tones in public events. These are heavy observations on a city that – at the time – was changing its skin under the pressure of the construction of the Arsenal.
The Batiston represents the spirit of the last authentic La Spezia, who no longer recognizes his city and sees his world die rapidly.

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