Battle Of The Oranges At The Carnival Of Ivrea
Image Credit: Battle of oranges is a very old festival | Unsplash

Fancy a showdown with oranges for weapons? Every year, the peaceful northern Italian town of Ivrea transforms into a crazy battlefield, where two groups of people recreate an ancient battle between two factions and fling oranges at each other for days. Lots of oranges. 

If that sounds like a certain Spanish tomato-throwing festival, you're correct—the Battle of Oranges at the Carinal of Ivrea is similar to La Tomatina in Spain, with one exception. The Italian battle of oranges is much older, and the Italian participants are far more passionate about it.

The story behind the "battle of the oranges" is a soap opera all its own. The most widely believed legend says that a 12th-century nobleman (probably Raineri di Biandrate) of this town attempted to rape the daughter of a local miller, a commoner, under a bizarre law known as jus primae noctis in Latin (right of the first night) and Droit du seigneur (right of the lord) in French. The law "allowed" the feudal lords of the time to have legally sanctioned sexual relations with subordinate (non-aristocrat) women, especially on the wedding nights of the women. Writers in the 17th century described it as a widespread practice across Europe, but modern historians have pretty much come to the conclusion that the law itself is a myth. The stories that have been passed down are more a case of feudal lords abusing their power to sexually exploit serfs and their womenfolk without any consequences, not an actual legal right. However, some scholars have argued that such a custom was binding, even if not given legal sanction.

In the town of Ivrea, according to legend, the local feudal lord, allegedly a member of the Ranieri (Rainier) family, was related by marital alliance to the French royal family. Like most old-world feudal families, they were said to be ruthless and exploitative. The lord wanted to enforce his right of the first night with Violetta, the miller’s daughter, but it backfired for the venal feudal. Violetta planned to counter the tyrant: on the fateful evening, the miller’s daughter decapitated the lord and showed off his head to the people gathered near the walls. The locals then stormed the palace and set it on fire! This burning of the palace/castle is thought to have occurred around the year 1194. Until the 1600s, the carnival was celebrated separately by different parts of the region. In the 1800s, the various celebrations were combined to create one large carnival in Ivrea.

It is the oldest carnival in Italy | Unsplash

This story of bravery against a tyrannical social order has become part of the oldest carnival in Italy, the Carnival of Ivrea. The fight that ensued that night when Violetta attacked the Lord is now recreated every year as "The Battle of Oranges." For a few days every February, a little after noon, a horse-cart carrying men dressed in medieval armor rides around the streets of Ivrea. The cart represents the Rainieri army. The streets are filled with hundreds (or even thousands) of people who are being handed oranges by the organizers. The orange throwers represent the townspeople who rose up and attacked the army. These oranges are pelted at the cart as a tribute to the girl’s and the town’s defiance hundreds of years ago. And yes, they really do fling large, ripe oranges at the cart and at each other. In no time, the streets are filled with orange pulp and peels, and, just as you sit down for a spell to give your throwing arm a breather, the next batch of oranges is being handed out. The battle goes on!

The main "battle" event is held over three days—Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday—and has nine teams or factions. These are the "combatants" who chuck oranges at each other with considerable aggression. You may even see the odd injury, like some poor bloke who gets clocked on the nose by a particularly hard tangerine and has blood streaming out the nostrils. The Italians really get into it, and you’ll likely see a few of them holding each other's collars and trading jibes like they were facing down the feudal duke himself! But it is mostly in good fun. The battle comes to an end on Tuesday night. The carnival had been stopped on account of the pandemic but is expected to resume in 2023. The only other times it was suspended was during the two world wars.

In earlier times, beans were used instead of oranges. Later, apples were used. Sometime in the 19th century, oranges came to represent the stones that were chucked at the palace by the commoners as they tried to demolish it. One story claims that the oranges were a French influence from the town of Nice, where carnivals had people throw oranges at passersby from their balconies. In Italy, oranges do not grow anywhere near the town of Ivrea and have to be transported from the southern regions of Italy, like Sicily. In any case, oranges have made a mark, and records show that, in 1994, over 275 tons of the fruit were brought to Ivrea to use in the Battle of Oranges!