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Schignano Carnival: between melancholy, myths, century-old traditions and local history

7 min read

Some of you, for a variety of more than valid reasons, probably don’t like at all the traditional carnivals: confetti in your hair, sparklers, somewhere even shaving foam or eggs in your face, chariots with horrible masks inspired by politicians for some more or less useless reasons.
If you believe that there isn’t so much to laugh for in such an often vulgar mess, well, I’m absolutely on your side.

But (yes, there’s always a but) Lake Como have a carnival that will make you change your mind about your traditional idea of this loved or hated holiday.
I’m talking about Schignano Carnival, a bizzarre mix of history, traditions, and local folklore.
Due to its spontaneity and lack of rules, this carnival is more like an archaic, surreal ritual, emotional and, above all, terribly engaging.
But, before that, a little bit of histoty about Schignano.
Located in Valle Intelvi, at a 20 minutes drive from Argegno, on the western shore of Lake Como, it’s a pictoresque hamlet with its less than 900 inhabitants, and definitely a remote destination quite far from the most popular touristic routes of the area.
And that’s probably why its ancient traditions have been perfectly preserved over time.
Time, in fact, has stopped in this tiny village nestled among forests and alpine pastures, and here the traditional carnival keeps being celebrated in the same way year over year, from generation to generation.
In short, Schignano carnival stages the atavistic rivalry between the Bèi (literally the beautiful) and the Brüt (the ugly), the rich and the poor.
Historically, both are emigrants, but the main difference is that the Bèi have made their fortune abroad, and they are in fact elegantly dressed, while the Brùt have failed, and that’s why they get drunk and they sadly wander around the village, often with an empty leather suitcase.

This is nothing more than the re-enactment of the time when, on the eve of spring and more precisely on the day after the Shrove Tuesday, the men of the village used to leave their family to emigrate in search of luck.
They left with an empty suitcase, hoping to fill it before their return in December.
Schignano, being on the boundary with Switzerland, has alway been a poor village and its inhabitants have always emigrated and, interestingly, one of them was on the Titanic (and you can still see his grave in the village’s cemetery).
That’s why this carnival has a subtle melancholic shade, as it’s always been the way local families used to say goodbye to their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers.
And, in most cases, there’s really nothing happy in a goodbye!
Either way, on Fat Tuesday, at midnight, a huge bonfire declared also at the time the end of the party and the inevitable, sad departure of all emigrants.

The symbol of Schignano Carnival are the hand-carved wooden masks: local artisans, sculpt them from the roots of walnut trees, and more rarely from service trees or tilias.
Believe it or not, the oldest mask dates back to 200 years ago!
And each mask has its own expression and name, to be able to discern them.

Italian singer-songwriter Davide Van De Sfroos has dedicated a song to Schignano carnival, where he perfectly summarizes the dramatic allure of these masks:

…this mask that hides me
I keep it strong, I never give it up,
The only face I have is this one
As I don’t know where the other one is

But also:
No mask changes the face
Even if there’s a man crying underneath

Another interesting fact about this carnival is that there just six main characters.
As already mentioned above the brüt, literally “the ugly”, represent the poor, the ones living by agriculture and pastoralism, and the emigrants who haven’t managed to make fortune abroad. They are covered with rags and they wander around the street of the village with their clumsy cowbells and work tools, including pack baskets, accessories of stonecutters, masons, cobblers and even chairs.
What they do is basically to create havoc among the spectators: they kidnap the girls, they throw animal skinned skins to people and they lavish caresses with dirty hands.
Often they drag an empty suitcase, symbol of poverty, or a ladder, which represents the effort of carving out a place in society.
The meaning of these spites is the anger for the life of hardships they make, the labors, and the sacrifices that never lead to the desired results.
When you see them sitting or laid down in a corner, actually they are dealing with their anger for not having made it.

The Bèi, on the other hand, are “the beautiful”, the lucky emigrants who did it.
They wear in fact colorful dresses with lace, feathers, fans, flashy jewels, umbrellas, big hats with flowers, little bells and other useless accessories that represent their extreme desire of display.
They walk with apparent elegance, with their huge belly (the “buttasc”, in local dialect, symbol of opulence), and they don’t care at all at the harms caused by the Brüt.
Basically, they embody a conceited humanity all focused on itself, and probably now you start understanding why the Brüt are so pissed off, I agree.

The “Ciocia” is the only character of the whole carnival allowed to talk, of course, in local dialect! One of the best features of Schignano Carnival is indeed the fact that no character is allowed to talk, so it’s basically a silent party, primitive and unpolished, and the only steady sound is the one of the bells.
This caracter is actually a man dressed as a woman with the face covered with soot, the Mascarùn’s wife/slave, who drags her with a rope as a possible reference to women’s condition of past years.
Petulant and polemic, has the features of a witch: apron, clogs, head scarf, rock and spindle to spin the wool, and she rightly complains of her husband, who left her alone to seek fortune abroad, where he’s most probably betrayed her.
A tale as old as time.

The Sapeur are mysterious characters who lead the procession on the first Saturday of Carnival and on Shrove Tuesday.
They are quite disturbing, completely covered with sheepskin, their skin is painted in black, they hold a terrible axe in their hands, and they embody the most primitive, savage, ritual soul of the carnival.
A popular theory states that they represent the first colonizers of Valle Intelvi, old authorities of peasents, who chopped down a large part of the forests to settle down the first villages.

And then the Sigurtà, icon of authority, who has the duty to check who is under each mask, and this is strictly linked to local history.
Until the ‘60s, in fact, you needed to declare yourself to the police if you wanted to wear a carnival mask, and this was required to prevent smuggling, a deeply rooted practice in the area.

Close the picture the “Carlisepp”, or “Ul Zep”, the symbol of the carnival itself, basically a puppet that is hung on a window in the main square of the village, Piazza San Giovanni.
On Shrove Tuesday, it’s replaced by a living Carlisepp, usually a guy among the group of those turning 18 in the current year.
The boy, wearing the same outfit of the puppet, is bind on a ladder by his peers, and his destination is the bonfire. However, once close to the piazza, the guy frees himself from the ladder and starts an exciting escape to survive.
The final bonfire marks the end of the carnival and the beginning of Lent.
Simbolically he is condemned to the stake because he would like the Carnival to never end.

And, as conclusion, attending this carnival is an experience you should try at least once, to fully plunge yourself in the culture of Schignano, a community that resists, and strives for preserving its century-old tradition.

As Davide Van Des Sfroos says…

de questa sira gh’èmm pioe una lengua
gh’èmm pioe una facia
gh’èmm pioe un mestée
dumà un vestìi una buteglia
e questa maschera de lègn


And tonight we no longer have a language
We no longer have a face
We no longer have a job
Just a dress, a bottle
And this wooden mask

Deeply felt by the inhabitants of the town, Schignano Carnival is capable of giving a unique experience to those who choose to…immerse themselves in it!

All photos are mine

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