And You Thought Oranges Were for Vitamin C

Every year during the week leading to Lent, the peaceful, relaxed air of the northern Italian town of Ivrea is filled with the cries of battle and nearly a million flying, smashing oranges. During the Ivrea’s carnevale celebration, the entire town in caught up in a three-day orange-throwing festival (La Battaglia delle Arance). This event, seemingly bizarre, is actually a symbolic battle between the citizens of the medieval city and the forces of oppression.

As one story has it, the orange-throwing represents an episode when the town’s feudal lords gave pots of beans to the poor as charity, only to have their meager offering thrown back at them. Another, juicier story tells of the townspeople’s incitement to rebellion when an Ivrean nobleman, the Marquis Ranieri de Biandrate attempted to steal the virginity of a young commoner, Violetta, on the eve of her wedding. Violetta defended herself well, and presented the Marquis’ head to the townspeople crowded outside the castle balcony. As the story goes, this was not the first time the Marquis had used his status to take advantage of young Ivrean women, and Violetta’s actions inspired the townspeople to destroy the castle in a symbolic rejection of their subjection. Today, the oranges are said to represent the marquis’ head and the pulp, well…it’s clear.

The thousands of throwers, decked out in ornate costumes, are divided into teams who defend their designated areas—any one of the five piazzas-turned-battlegrounds. Armed with thousands of crates of Sicilian and Calabrian oranges, their goal is to wage battle against the carts of volunteer adversaries, “castle defenders” wearing helmets and padded suits, which are repeatedly wheeled into their piazzas. Fishing nets are stretched around the multiple battlegrounds, behind which thousands of spectators gather to watch the pulp-smashing action, and occasionally to join right in.

Ivrea, this normally placid town of 25,000 is nestled at the foot of the Alps just a few hours north of Torino. Ivrea is often a stopping point on the way to the Valle d’Aosta and also known as one of the culinary gems of Piemonte. If you would like to attend next year’s “battle of the oranges,” it will be held February 2 to 5, 2008. – Cailin Birch