I am kneeling on a stone floor with thirty Italians surrounding me. A strongly built Italian a metre from me is about to throw oranges at my head as hard as he can. From this distance, he can’t miss.
Two hard oranges land strongly on the crown of my head and the crowd begins to cheer. I rise to my feet as the newest member of the Asso di Picche, one of the nine tribes competing in the Ivrea Battle of the Oranges.
This bizarre festival, known to the locals as Carnival, has its roots in a historical incident from 1194. The miller’s daughter, “la Mugnaia Violetta” was married and the unpopular Duke claimed his droit du seigneur, forcing Violetta into his castle. She refused to submit to his advances and cut off his head.
This started the revolution that brought down the castle.
Today, the Tyrant’s henchmen are represented by masked Arcanceri (Orange throwers) on horses. They parade around the city, attacking and being attacked by locals from nine tribes representing the 12th-century villagers. We, the people, outnumber our opponents, but we are on foot and without protective headgear. It’s a fair fight.
My tribe, the Aranceri Asso di Picche (Ace of Spades), is the oldest, founded in 1947. The others are:
Aranceri della Morte (Death’s Aranceri), 1954.
Aranceri Tuchini del Borghetto (Revolutionaries of the Borough) 1964
Aranceri degli Scacchi (The Chess) 1964
Aranceri Pantera Nera (Black Panther), 1965
Aranceri Scorpioni d’Arduino (Arduino’s Scorpions), 1966
Aranceri Diavoli (The Devils), 1973
Aranceri Mercenari (The Mercenaries), 1974
Aranceri Credendari (The Credendari), 1985.
Each of the nine tribes has its own story and history. From speaking with locals, I gather that tribal allegiances are similar to English football clubs: you pick your team early based on friend/family allegiances, and you do not switch your team later in life without a very good reason. Our flags are in honour of the asso di Picche, not the village.
The duke’s men enter, and the orange throwing begins!
Every man, woman and child has oranges to hurl furiously at the masked villains on top of the wagons. They return fire hard. This lasts for perhaps thirty seconds, then their horses gallop around to a new part of the square. This happens at four distinct parts of the square before they trot out. Many different horse-drawn carriages repeat their route; each yields furious attacks.
During the fight, I see one of the older members of our team (I’d guess 60-65), standing on the side with a fairly severe black eye. I approach him, gesture sympathetically, and suggest in my best Italian that he sees a doctor. He vehemently shakes his head, grabs his left bicep and says firmly “no, sono Asso di picche”. He then wanders back into the fray. Ace of Spades men, it seems, fight through their injuries.
On the subject of masculine pride, one man had wanted to join the Asso di Picche without being used as target practice from point-blank range. A tribe elder responded by grabbing the man’s crotch, to imply he had no balls. This is not a #MeToo space.
Two hours in, we are exhausted. There is no need to return to crates for oranges – enough oranges lie on the floor to pick up ammo wherever you stand. This is probably a good thing because orange pulp is four inches deep and it is tough to walk or run.
After the event finishes on the third day, the streets are cleaned, there is a parade and a celebratory burn in the main area. The Ivrea carnival is officially over for another year.
Turin airport is only an hour away. Logistically, this is easy. If you just want to spectate, it’s fine to wander around the city watching the fighting. Red hats are on almost everyone: these denote you are a non-combatant and should be treated as such. But for a fuller experience, I recommend you reach out to some of the tribes a month in advance, ideally with an Italian speaker. Do not show up on the day and expect to join a tribe.
I find myself impressed by how rigidly everyone keeps to the rules: nobody throws oranges at the horses bearing the duke’s wagon. Nobody throws oranges at the wrong tribe, and nobody aims at a red-hatted spectator. A single poor sportsman could have ruined the event for everyone, but this orange fight has no bad apples.
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