It’s a familiar story: commoners rise up against an oppressive ruler. At the Carnevale di Ivrea, however, the battle isn’t waged with guns and swords—oranges are the weapon of choice. Every year, the tiny northern city of Ivrea in the Turin province stockpiles 500,000 kilograms of fresh oranges for Battaglia delle Arance (Battle of the Oranges), a re-creation of a historic fight between townsfolk and a ruling tyrant. Teams wage a full-on fruit war, and not even a red-capped declaration of sovereignty can protect you from getting juiced.
Legend says that some time between the 12th and 13th centuries, Ivrea’s lord attempted to rape the daughter of a miller on the eve of her wedding, exercising his droit du seigneur (right of the lord) to take the virginity of his serfs’ daughters. In a twist of fate, the plan backfired, and the rebellious young woman decapitated him. With one brave strike of her sword, she set the town free from his oppression. The townspeople battled on foot against the lord’s henchmen, who were elevated in horse-drawn carts.
Today, this struggle between the classes is represented by the lord’s followers in carts wearing jesters’ outfits, and commoners on their feet in sporting uniforms. The miller’s daughter, Violetta, is represented by a woman dressed in white and a crimson-red headdress, who throws yellow flowers and candies to her admirers. The oranges represent the tyrannical lord’s head, but for centuries beans were thrown, then apples. The modern festival evolved from the way flirty local girls dropped oranges from a balcony to get the attention of boys they were interested in; if the feeling was mutual, the boys would reply with an orange of their own.
Unlike Spain’s La Tomatina, the Battle of the Oranges isn’t a backpacker free-for-all. It’s highly structured, steeped in history and contains some competitive elements. It’s free and fun to watch for nearly 100,000 spectators, but for the nine competitive teams of almost 4,000, it’s serious business and the highlight of the year.
The horse-drawn carts and their despised armored occupants represent the emperor’s men—and they get a serious pelting. Officially, you need to be part of a foot-soldier mercenary group such as the Mercenri to be in battle. Unofficially (and against the rules), just wander into the battle zone, remove your red cap and start chucking oranges. This is a rebellion of the people, and you can be among them, but be warned that while few suffer serious injuries, many wake up with orange-size bruises the next day. (There’s quite a bit of mulled wine pouring through the system of most combatants, so expect a disproportionate degree of intensity from a few orange-lobbers.) Wearing a red hat or head wrap is supposed to leave you exempt from a direct hit, but being anywhere on the ground in the town’s square leaves you open to being pelted.
The carnival takes place the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday (Mardi Gras) before Ash Wednesday. The orange battle starts Sunday at 2pm, and the evening prior, a joyous procession pays respect to the woman standing in for the miller’s daughter. The festival ends on Mardi Gras, when awards, determined by judges patrolling the piazzas and by the defenders themselves, are handed out to the top-performing teams. This is another dichotomy of the event; while the battle is quite competitive and there is pride in winning, it’s really all about the celebration. The festival concludes with a sword-wielding Violetta watching over a scarlo, a pole with juniper and heather bushes. If the scarloburns fast and bright, the future looks good; a slow burn is a bad omen for the coming year.
Although the battle is more than a little messy and even violent on occasion, the townspeople of Ivrea consider it a birthright and an important part of their culture. They find the battle liberating and joyous, and consider their aggression a way to reaffirm the vigor with which they once resisted oppression. Looking around at today’s world, we couldn’t think of a more relevant theme.