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Carnival in Acireale:
Celebrating the joy of living

by Lesley Peterson

The Carnival in Acireale, Sicily is inspired by the bitter sweetness of living in the shadow of Europe’s tallest active volcano. Acireale’s location on the Sicilian coast just below Mount Etna means that Carnival joy is leavened with an urgency to make the most of today, just in case tomorrow never comes.

Acireale hosts one of Italy’s biggest Carnival celebrations, drawing nearly a million visitors a year.  They come for the fun, the food and the music, but most of all to see spectacular parade floats light up the baroque town as they vie for prizes and glory.

Nearly 20 metres high on their moving carriages, the allegorical floats feature light, motion and grotesque masks that mock politicians, sports stars and other public figures. Remarkably, the massive works are created completely by hand in papier mâché.

When I got an invite to visit Acireale’s float workshops, I jumped on it. I knew that papier mâché was an ancient craft used in Sicily for centuries to produce religious statuary, toys and more. I imagined old Geppettos toiling over an archaic art form doomed to die out when they did. Instead, I met contemporary artists with a wicked sense of satire and a sharp eye on world headlines.

Winding alleys led to the workshops, or cantieri, clustered on the outskirts of town in hangar-type buildings. Production spilled out of doors, garish in the midday sun. I squeezed past a brooding mask of Italian journalist Bruno Vespa that filled the entrance to cantiere Coco. As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, ghost-like figures emerged from the plaster haze.

Maestro Giovanni Coco jumped down from scaffolding to welcome me. He introduced me, then unrolled a drawing of the cantiere’s current project and explained how each year’s float begins with an idea. Deciding how to illustrate this idea or theme is, he says, the hardest part of the process.

The artists in the shop work on various stages. I learned that once a detailed drawing is made, float components are individually carved in clay and fired. From these, plaster molds are created upon which layer after layer of paper are built, taking care to maintain detail. Once dry, the paper sculptures are painted,  lacquered and mounted on moving metal frames. It’s a painstaking process that takes an entire year.

When it was finally time to leave, I understood that Carnival in Acireale is much more than a celebration of season and heritage. It’s an artistic expression of the joy of living in the shadow of magnificent Etna.