La Spezia Carnival traditions

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La Spezia Carnival floats get back to town, with a big street party.
Meet Batiston, the guy who wanted the throne as King of the Carnival. A brief history of the traditional mask of La Spezia.

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 the eastern Liguria the carnival does not seem to be an as strong and established tradition as in other areas of Italy, the figure that for strength and characterization is closest to the other Italian regional masks is that of Batiston.

Who is Batiston?

The character 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”).

Batiston, la maschera tipica del Carnevale della Spezia

The poster for the Carnival celebrations in La Spezia in 1869

In what are the typical characters of Batiston it seems to recognize the popular adages that concern the inhabitants of the Ligurian east in general. Batiston is in fact a village character, a typical true local, full of vigor, witty and pungent, a “What you see is what you get” guy, also called “Batiston er mugnon, er vogia de fae gnente” (Battistone the plaintive, the slacker).

Where does Batiston come from?

Investigating about the origins of the Batiston mask, the footprints seem to lead to a man who actually existed and is known by the people.
In a nutshell, 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 characteristics of provincial cities, where extrovert or characteristic people are frequently known by everyone 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 Maià (Maria, in dialect), also an outspoken and nice woman, considered the daughter of the Re Carlevà . the Carnival King and Batiston’s wife, who, by virtue of her wedding, becomes Carlevà’s son-in-law and finally new Emperor.
From that moment, we have often heard of “Batiston e sé mogé Maìa” (Batiston and his wife Maria), a fundamental step to raise Batiston to the true protagonist of the carnival, closely linked to the spirit of the party.

The La Spezia Carnival before Batiston and Maià

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

Before this wedding, in the fifties of the nineteenth century, the La Spezia carnival was an enthralling village festival (it must be remembered that before the construction of the Arsenale, which took place in 1862, the inhabited area of ​​La Spezia had little consistency) with almost total participation of its inhabitants.
The main figure was King Carlevà. In a parade in which the various neighborhoods 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 burnt on the marina.
Traditionally, King Carlevà Morente – before being burned – left a testament to citizenship: initially it was only a list of objects, but later it was transformed into “the list of graces”, that is, a series of tips for the population, in turn changed into a satire of costume: it is the origin of the song.
When Batiston is already on the scene – at that pointthe son-in-law of King Carlevà – he will be the one to read the king’s will to the people.

Batiston’s songs

In a calendar of the time, there are traces of some songs from the late sixties of the nineteenth century with a certain Batiston as protagonist.
The first, signed by Serafino Pucci, reads 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… 

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

Even if there are those who claim that Falabela is a neighboring locality (however disappeared and not remembered today), it is more likely that it is a dialectal expression that means “make it beautiful”, that is “combine trouble”, while certainly the Citadel is the ancient district of La Spezia.
The verses are written in strict and genuine dialect; the small composition 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, lie down on the ground, under the arcades of via Chiodo. From this description starts a pity towards those who sweat and who, as a reward, lead a life of rags, and a decisive attack on 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 gain weight in doing nothing / do you see these pains / which afflict the poor people?)

In 1866 it was no small matter to express oneself with such harshness 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 Arsenale.
Batiston represents the spirit of the last authentic La Spezia local people, who no longer recognized their city and who quickly see their world die.

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