The Rome Carnival we attend and celebrate today has very ancient roots, just like most festivals and traditions in Italy. It usually takes place around February, always Thursday (Fat Thursday), Sunday (Carnival Sunday), and Tuesday (Mardi Gras) before Ash Wednesday, which is when Lent, the forty-day period before Easter, starts.
Not as famous as the Carnival of Venice or the celebrations in Viareggio, during Roman Carnival you can join several parades around the city center in popular places such as Via del Corso, Piazza del Popolo, and Piazza Navona. This is a great festival to attend if you are visiting Rome in February and if you are traveling with children, they will love to join the party.
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Rome Carnival – History and Origins
Starting in the 12th century, the early celebrations of the Rome Carnival festival were known as ludus carnevalarii and were inspired by the ancient rituals of the Saturnalia that were common in imperial times. During this festival, the social rules were temporarily dropped and citizens could experience an upside-down world where the slaves could feel like free men and part of the high society.
They would nominate a temporary leader with temporary given power. He would dress in red and wear a grotesque mask to represent the gods to protect the souls of the dead and protect the harvest.
When Christianity took over, the Carnival was kept and adapted to become the occasion for the Pope and local officials to reach Testaccio riding their horses. Here, the festival would carry on with propitiatory rituals and members of local noble families engaged in duels, tournaments, and bullfighting events at the feet of the Monte dei Cocci.
Since the 15th century, the Rome Carnival is celebrated in the ancient Via Lata, the modern Via del Corso, where young and old people, as well as animals, would race for the rich rewards. Even the local culture and traditions were influenced by the Roman Carnival so famous artists including Raphael and Michelangelo were involved in the celebrations together with the population.
Along with people’s races, Rome’s city center would become a jolly theater of tournaments, battles, parades, and a horse race, one of the most awaited and spectacular events. Via Lata, now Via del Corso, was the place where noble families would parade and show off their luxurious carts, as well as the parade headed by the Pope, ruler of the city.
Along with the classic masquerades of Rome Carnival such as Meo Patacca and Rugantino, the parades were rich in costumes taken from the daily life from different jobs to different social positions, making the city center a real open-air theater for the whole duration of the festival. With the Italian unification in 1870, the rich tradition of Rome Carnival saw its decline. The Savoy royal family started forbidding the celebrations mainly due to the deadly accidents that happened every year.
How is Carnival in Rome celebrated
Probably due to its past papacy reign that lasted for centuries, Rome Carnival remained hidden in people’s private spaces or slightly permitted by the ruling clergy as a diversion and quick distraction before repenting during Lent.
Rome Carnival puts on display what the eternal city is most proud of, its own history. Every year, during the march that usually takes place downtown from central Piazza del Popolo along Via Ripetta and Via del Corso, historic costumes belonging to different eras, social classes, traditions, and professions parade guarded by horse-riding military orders.
Needless to say, just like every other event in Rome, it is spectacular and extremely fascinating to reminisce the city’s thousand-year-old history through traditional costumes, historical flags, and ebullient drum rolls.
Themed parade floats carry large flags and masquerades of different types and from different historical ages, all belonging to the Roman tradition. Themes and topics range from ancient costumes, issues from daily life, satire, and politically incorrect irreverence. Now like centuries ago, the Rome Carnival is a way to drop conventional mores and allow some level of transgression in the public order and social decency.
And now, just like centuries ago, you will see along Via del Corso an interesting parade of locals wearing traditional and historical costumes from imperial times, medieval times, knights, soldiers, noble families, popes, and peasants.
The parade, which usually goes from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo, is not the only moment for celebrations. In Piazza Navona, you can see street artists entertaining adults and kids with beautiful performances, alla along Via dei Fori Imperiali are artists, performers, and masquerades dancing, singing, and acting along the way.
Writers and poets who attended the celebrations at least once were enchanted and reported the magnificence of the organization, parades, races, and festive spirit. If you are in Rome during Carnival, join the party and have fun with modern and historical traditions, colorful masquerades and costumes, fireworks, and art with the stunning background of ancient ruins and Renaissance architecture.
Dates of Carnevale di Roma 2023
This year, Rome’s Carnival takes place between February 16th and February 21st:
- February 16th: Fat Thursday (Giovedì Grasso)
- February 19th: Carnival Sunday (Domenica di Carnevale)
- February 21st: Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Martedì Grasso)
On February 22nd, Rome celebrates Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the 40 days of repentance spent fasting and praying in preparation for Easter.
What to book ahead for Carnival in Rome
- Hotels. Rome is full of great hotels, but if there is a specific place you would like to stay at, I recommend booking ahead to make sure you find a room. This year, Carnival is right after Valentine’s Day, so if you have a favorite romantic hotel, don’t hesitate to secure your spot.
- Restaurants. February in Rome is generally a quiet month, but Carnival is a festival that Romans love to celebrate. If you want to dine out during the days of Carnival, I suggest calling in advance to reserve a table because not only tourists but also locals go to eat out and continue the celebrations. This especially applies if you want to eat in the city center.
- Major landmarks. Important sights like the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums would always require prior reservation because they are never really empty.
Carnival events in Rome
Carnevale degli animali at San Carlino Puppet Theater
From February 4th to February 26th, San Carlino Puppet Theater in Villa Borghese has a dedicated show for children and kids. The theme is animals’ carnival and two clowns carry around their circus of funny animals. This is a lovely show both kids and adults will enjoy. To see the full schedule, check their official website.
On Carnival Sunday and Shrove Tuesday, Piazza Navona becomes a huge open-air theater where street artists engage in fascinating performances. You will see comedians, dancers, mimes, and painters entertaining kids and adults.
Children are dressed up in their favorite costumes that range from modern cartoon figures such as Spiderman and Anna from Frozen to more traditional masquerades such as the Italian Arlecchino and Pulcinella.
The square gets quickly filled with colorful confetti (coriandoli) and streamers (stelle filanti) that you can easily find in most supermarkets, local food and souvenir shops, and “Sali e tabacchi” shops.