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Carnival in Italy Through the Lens of Ferdinando Scianna

“Carnival is […] a brief interval of freedom when the humble worker  was allowed to make a mockery of the master.”


It is not easy to capture the essence of a tradition, its orderly flow, iridescent and enduring, its disordered emotions. What hides in a photo negative is a mystery that only light and shadow know.


Ferdinando Scianna combines both, immortalizing life’s moments, mysteries, local customs and types of people in the black and white of his shots. He portrays people celebrating, photographed from north to south during religious processions or town square celebrations. He has seen a multitude of Carnivals, in the heart and mind. His works are a way to preserve the memory of cultural phenomena that must not lose their essence.


A lovers’ kiss in Piazza Duomo, confetti carpeting the steps of the Duomo which the elderly and children alike randomly climb.


Carnival is the world in reverse: “a brief interval of freedom when the humble worker  was allowed to make a mockery of the master.”


Although today’s Carnival has taken on a tinge of its original colors, Scianna’s quotes and images that speak for themselves alike, best describe its contradictions.


The meaning of the feast cannot lose itself in a commercial game. The Carnival Scianna describes is a unique anthropological exhibition, made up of bygone values and their opposites. Laughter, irony, and mockery are also part of the culture. You can tell a lot from how a person laughs or if they know how to laugh.


“Today, at the feasts, the most popular mask is that of the photographer. In most cases people no longer celebrate a rite, but rather perform an act for the mass media, as Carnival is a commercial lower middle class game. If there is still any wrongdoing it is only symbolic.”


The Milanese masks of Cecca and Meneghino, fried tortelli, powdered sugar on “chiacchere”, and streamers caught in eyelashes and hair.


But what is the meaning of Carnival today? “Be happy now for tomorrow is not a given.” This is the lesson to recapture, reading again this powerful portrait of Milan in the 80s, when love was in the air and happiness was palpable. And even if everything was a farce, real emotions came to light.



Ferdinando Scianna is very fond of Milan and Carnival celebrations, as evidenced by his research with Roberto Leydi “On the Carnivals of Northern Italy” and his powerful photos from the 1968 Carnival at the Basaglia Psychiatric Hospital in Gorizia.