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Saturday, 9 February, 2002, 12:47 GMT
Italy's topsy-turvy times
Italy carnival
Carnival season: Not all is as it seems
Topsy-turvy days for Italy. It's the World Turned Upside Down - the traditional state of carnival. Joanna Robertson joins in the fun.

Sixteen days of licentious romping leading up to Lent, when the Pagan overules the Catholic, and anyone can become anyone and get up to anything behind a quickly-donned festive mask.

Sequinned and glittering, painted and elegant, bawdy and big - the masks come in all shapes and sizes.

Carnival comes as a boon to the jaded. Confetti-throwing, party-whistle-blowing, shaving-foam spraying ... liberty

The 'be-who-you-like' carnival mood began a little early - according to some - when the prime minister created an extra identity for himself by appointing himself foreign minister as well as premier.

The foreign ministry, like the rest of the country - the tycoon Mr Berlusconi decreed - will now be run as a business venture, with Italy as the merchandise.

Dressing up

Below the mask comes the costume. For children, this is a fortnight of fairytale. Clothed in gaudy silk, fake silver and gold, they dream of being princes and princesses.

Dressed as fairies and pirates, long-nosed clowns and diamond-patterned harlequins - they run to school, play football, visit the dentist, or simply pound round the piazza.

Carnival in Italy
Carnival: 'Be-who-you-like' time

Italy's real-life prince-in-exile, Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia - who wouldn't dream of being gaudy - was rather disparaging of his homeland this week.

"Perhaps Italy should be managed like a company," he told the New York Times. "Perhaps it's all the Italian people can understand".

He and his family anyway no longer believed in Italian politicians, he said. The 30-year-old youngest heir to Italy's non-existent throne, is, somewhat surprisingly, considered the diplomat of the House of Savoy.

The royal family were banished in 1946 for their role in supporting fascism, and their male heirs have been forbidden to set foot on home soil since.

In what was to many a staunch Republican yet another topsy-turvy move, Italian politicians shrugged off the seeming contempt of the Royals, and voted overwhelmingly to allow the Geneva-based Savoys back over the border.

The Prince, in another undiplomatic move, had already intimated that he'd hardly be taking up residence.

Well-organised Switzerland was a far better place to live.

Upside down weather

On the upside-down weather-front, winter has been summer - at least in terms of rainfall.

First, it was far too cold - there were snowball fights in Sicily. Now, it's too warm.

Encouraged by the carnival spirit and noon temperatures worthy of a T-shirt, daisies are sprouting in sunny clumps along the half-dried-out riverbed of Rome's Tiber.

The river has hit its late July muddy puddle-of-a-water-level six months too early.

River Tiber
The unseasonable weather has left the Tiber running low

The impressive speedboats of Rome's slick water police have taken to scraping along on their bottoms.

A rather weary superintendent - used to fishing all kinds of things out of the river - described the situation this way:

"At this time, anyone who tries to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge and drowning will instead simply die on impact."

But it's unlikely they'll want to. Carnival comes as a boon to the jaded. Confetti-throwing, party-whistle-blowing, shaving-foam spraying ... liberty.

Fistfuls of coloured paper hurled upwards folded into the gentle warmth of the February wind. Innocent passers-by spurted with foam or garlanded with showers of paper streamers.

The sun is strengthening. Last summer's tables are creeping out of restaurants into pools of primrose-golden warmth.

Mimosa trees are coming into bloom, and fruit stalls are weighed down with lemons, small sweet blood oranges and tiny, rosy-red Sicilian tomatoes.

Sweet delights

It's a time of special sweets - of crisp bigne filled with thick custard, zeppole topped with sour black cherries, deep-fried castagnole rolled in crystallised sugar and powdered cinnamon, crunchy sweet-melting frappe, and pastries stuffed with ricotta and chocolate - all veiled with heaps of powdered sugar.

For 16 days, they're eaten - hot and fresh - to keep out the non-existent cold, or snacked-on late at night to keep the revellers revelling.

Collapsible, they're best eaten in one or - at the most - two greedy bites, that leave a sticky fur of sugar round the mouth.

Gratuitous sugar is indeed the point, for on Ash Wednesday, these transient, deep-fried frivilous pagan delights vanish, to be replaced by Lenten cakes - demure on the outside, bulging with dried fruits and pine-nuts within, their plain doughs secretly leaking with butter.

Not everyone is a happy reveller. Vincenzo Caldarone for one.

The gentleman is the mayor of Andria, a town in Puglia, southern Italy, where he's seen fit to issue an order banning the sale or possession of shaving foam to or by anyone who cannot prove they intend to use it for actually shaving.

He is, he said, utterly sick of it being used in a "jesting" manner. "Shaving foam is a serious risk to public order," he declared. And as such, it has indeed been banned.

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