February 8, 2024 | Kaddy Gibson

The Battle Of The Oranges, Italy's Weirdest Festival


The Battle Of The Oranges

The carnival in Ivrea is one of Italy’s oldest festivals. While most carnivals end with a Mardi Gras that’s basically one final epic party, the folks in Ivrea end Carnival with something a little more aggressive: The Battle of the Oranges.

While taking part in Italy’s largest food fight may sound fun, the origins of this tradition are anything but.

battle of the oranges

Where Is The Battle Of The Oranges?

Ivrea is a small town in northern Italy’s Piedmont region. About 23,000 people live there. Each year, nearly 7,000 people gather in the city center to take part in the Battle of the Oranges.

Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2023Vfbia, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Origins Of The Battle

The inspiration for the Battle of the Oranges is said to date back to the Middle Ages, during the 1100s. At the time, Ivrea was governed by a tyrant who had a particularly vile way of exerting his power.

Carnival in Ivrea, battle of oranges - 2003Paolo Lucciola, Flickr

The Revolution

According to the story, the tyrant abducted a miller’s daughter named Violetta on the eve of her wedding. He tried to assault her, but the young woman beheaded him. When the people of Ivrea saw what she’d done, it sparked a revolution, and they burned the tyrant’s palace to the ground.

Carnevale of Ivrea -circa 1898 TorinoFondazione Torino Musei, CC BY 3.0 IT, Wikimedia Commons

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Acting Out The Past

The Battle of the Oranges commemorates this revolt against tyrannical power. Each year, a woman is chosen to play the part of the miller’s daughter, or La Mugnaia. Thousands of townsfolk come to La Mugnaia’s aid, dressed as soldiers and armed with oranges.

Carnival of Ivrea, La Mugnaia (The miller's daughter, heroine of the carnival) - 2008Laurom, Wikimedia Commons

The Aranceri

The battle has been an annual tradition in Ivrea since 1947. For three days, from Sunday to Mardi Gras Tuesday, nine teams of aranceri (meaning “orange-throwers”) duke it out in the streets of Ivrea. 

The aranceri on foot represent the angry villagers, while the aranceri who ride in horse-drawn carts represent the tyrants forces.

Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2023Vfbia, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Defend Your Square

Each team of aranceri villagers controls a piazza, or public square, in the town. They defend their piazzas against the aranceri in the chariots. 

Though it may seem like just a food fight, people truly embody the spirit of the revolt, and hurl the oranges at each other with all their might.

Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2010Edoardo Bartoccetti, Flickr

Why Do They Throw Oranges?

No one really knows why oranges are the chosen weapon of choice. They became part of the tradition later on in the 19th century and represent the stones that the villagers threw at the tyrant’s palace.

Mon. of Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2012Pmk58, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Original Fruit

In the first years of the battle, people threw beans at each other. Later, they used apples before settling on oranges. Beans are still an important part of Ivrea’s Carnival, and their use is the early days of the festival is commemorated by free servings of a bean dish called fagioli grassi.

Carnival of Ivrea, Fagiolata ( Preparing the bean soup) - 2008Laurom, Wikimedia Commons

Why Beans?

Beans were the weapon of choice in the early years of the festival because they represented the villagers’ contempt for the tyrant. 

In some stories of the rebellion, the tyrant gave poor families a pot of boiled beans to eat so they wouldn’t starve. He only did this twice each year, so people took to throwing beans as a way to show their anger at the tyrant’s disrespectful actions.

Brown beans on palmNicholas Githiri, Pexels

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Festival Food

At the carnival, fagioli grassi is the main dish. It's made in large cauldrons by combining beans, sausages, and bacon rind. 

Other traditional dishes at the festival include cured salami called salam duja and cabbage rolls called capunet.

Salami della duja from Novara - 2022Yozh, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

A Gathering Storm

There are 51 horse-drawn carts, and they’re divided into 35 pairs. Their carts are decorated with bold images and signs. The aranceri on horses gather around 1pm. When they split up to head to the piazzas, everyone know the battle will begin soon. 

Carnival of Ivrea, Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2008Laurom, Wikimedia Commons

How Many Oranges Are Used?

Over 600 tons of oranges are used as ammo during the battle. That’s the equivalent of 4 million oranges

Luckily, the oranges aren’t suitable to be sold, so it’s not a waste of food that people would normally eat.

Carnival of Ivrea, (Orange-battle, Laurom, Wikimedia Commons

A Big Mess

The sheer volume of smashed oranges on the streets can be as deep as 40 cm (15 inches). Each night, the streets are cleaned after the battle, and ready to get covered in the sticky fruit all over again the next day.

Ivrea, Italy-March 3, 2019: Battle of the Oranges during the Ivrea CarnivalStefano Guidi, Shutterstock

Sustainability 

The oranges that are used during the fight are ones that wouldn’t be sold for eating. They’d be used for pulping so smashing them at people on the street is kind of similar to where they’d end up anyway. The farmers are also paid for the oranges.

Ivrea/italy-07/22/2019 photo from Battle of the Oranges in Ivrearita bredeson, Shutterstock

Another Use For The Oranges 

At the end of each day of the battle, the smashed oranges are collected in a special tank. When the Battle of the Oranges comes to an end, all of the fruit is transported to a disposal plant whether it is turned into compost.

Mercenari's battle of oranges taken from Santo Stefano Tower in Ivrea - 2009Lupo, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

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Important Preparations 

Preparations for the Battle of the Oranges start in January, a month before the carnival. The town elects someone to play the role of Generale. 

The Generale is the master of ceremonies, and he begins the carnival festivities with a masquerade ball on the evening before the battle.

Historical Carnival of Ivrea, Northern Italy: The General - 1995Ambra75, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Most Important Role

The role of La Mugnaia is also chosen in January, though her identity is kept a secret until the eve of the battle. That’s when the person playing La Mugnaia is finally revealed and paraded through the streets in a golden carriage. 

She wears a white wedding dress, and the crowd often throws candies and small mimosa branches in celebration.

Carnival of Ivrea, La Mugnaia (The miller's daughter, heroine of the carnival) - 2008Laurom, Wikimedia Commons

The Abbà 

In addition to the Generale and La Mugnaia, the Abbà also have an important role to play in the festivities. 

The Abbà are a group of 10 children who dress in Renaissance costumes to represent the five parishes in Ivrea. They join the Generale at the opening ball.

Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2008Mcx83, Flickr

Joining In On The Fun

Anyone can participate in the battle, but depending on which team you join, the participation fee will cost up to 120 euros. Food, wine, and all the oranges you can throw during the three-day festival are included in the participation fee. 

Reservations for non-locals and those who haven’t been to the festival before usually open in January.

Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea Italy - 2007Giò, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Reservations For The Battle

When it comes to reserving a spot for the battle, this is usually done in-person. Some teams will let you sign up via email or make an exception for special case, but each team has their own rules about registration. 

It’s also common for rules to differ between experienced aranceri and first-timers, so check the teams’ websites for details.

Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2009Maurizio Montanaro, Flickr

The Uniform 

If you’re a newcomer, you’ll also have to buy a uniform, called a divisa. This can cost another 50 euros to 80 euros, but you get to keep the divisa after the battle and use it again. 

It’s common for people to sew patches representing the different years of the carnival onto their divisas, leaving them with a record of all the orange battles they’ve been in.

Ivrea Carnival - Orange battle - 1985Jayapura, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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At The Sound Of The Whistle

The sound of the whistle signals the beginning and end of the battle. It also lets participants know when they can put their oranges down and take a breather before the next round of fighting.

Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2023Vfbia, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Safety During The Battle

Safety nets are put around the buildings near the piazzas, so spectators can watch the battle without becoming collateral damage. 

During the battle you’ll see many people wearing big red Phrygian hats. Anyone wearing one of the hats is off-limits and can’t be attacked by the aranceri.

Carnival of Ivrea, Battle of the Oranges in Italy - 2008Laurom, Wikimedia Commons

Final Thoughts

The Battle of the Oranges is one the most unique and spirited traditions in the world. From its medieval origins to the zest-filled battlegrounds of today, this citrus-infused spectacle is sure to brings people together in a celebration of history and camaraderie for years to come. 

 

Battle of the Oranges in Italy, Northern Italy - 2023RnDmS, Shutterstock