Verona, the charming Italian town where Shakespear set his Romeo and Juliet, has its very own way to celebrate Carnival. The local people call it Bacanàl del Gnoco in Verona’s ancient dialect, and the gnocchi are exactly what makes this event so special. It is far from being the huge party so popular in nearby Venice, but there are masks, parades and everyone gets a dish of gnocchi, which is always a fine addition. This tradition may well be the oldest Carnival celebretion in Europe and has its roots back in the XVI century, when Veronese physician Tomaso Vico died and left all his belongings to charity, asking in his will that for the people living in the historic quarter San Zeno to receive for free once every year the much needed food. It was a troubled time, in fact, Northern Italy was perturbed by violent river floods and even more violent raids by Landsknechte‘s Germanic army, and the common people were faced by a devastating famine.
After many centuries, every last Friday before Lent gnocchi with tomato souce are offered to the people in San Zeno’s square, right in front of the cathedral. The same place is also the arrival for the parade started the same day in Corso Porta Nuova and brought through the whole town centre. Every float in the parade represents a district in Verona, and more add to the party coming from outer towns or foreign countries. The gnocchi, a simple meal made with flour and potatoes, were the only thing poor farmers could afford during famine and war time, but today they are a popular dish of the local culinary tradition and are prepared according a lot of variations and different recipes.
Many are the traditional masks, starting with a mocking Austrian court – their Empire had almost full control of Northern Italy until national independence and unification in 1861 – but the most celebrated one is called Papà del Gnoco, “Gnocco’s Father”, and only one person every year is allowed to wear such a mask. The lucky soul is democratically elected by the whole township after a fierce political campaign, and with his sceptre – a wooden fork with a huge gnocco on top of it – his royal outfit and his royal court he will attend every event during the whole celebration.