Monday, February 20, 2012


More than a month ago we started seeing sprinkles of colorful confetti in various piazzas around our neighborhood.  These were early hints that the excesses of carnevale were beginning.  The relaxation of inhibitions and the celebrations that result are traditional in many countries during the time leading up to the Christian season of Lent.  In Italy the religious implications remain, but it’s also a good excuse for a party.

Stray bits of confetti stick to a sidewalk utility cover.
In Rome the pre-Lenten activities don’t compare to the frantic excesses in Brazil or Trinidad, or even to the elaborate and colorful Venetian parades and masked balls, though there are parades and costume events.  But one thing every Roman can do during the carnevale season is throw confetti, known here as coriandoli.   It is sold in packets small and huge, consisting of colored paper bits that are round, square, star-shaped or amorphous.  By now, two days before Ash Wednesday, every piazza, gathering place, and sidewalk in the city is likely to have at least a scattering of the stuff, evidence that something fun happened there.

Coriandoli, above, up close,
below, scattered widely on piazzas and sidewalks.

Coriandoli means coriander seeds, and at least as far back as 16th century carnevale celebrations, actual coriander seeds that had been coated with chalky gesso—giving them visibility and a bit of weight for throwing—were tossed into the crowds.  The seeds when crushed have a pleasant citrusy aroma (quite different from the coriander or cilantro leaves of the same plant).  But near the end of the 19th century both triangular and circular bits of paper replaced the expensive coriander.  People loved the falling-snow effect of the new material but kept calling it coriandoli.  (In Italy, confetti are almonds coated with a hard sugar shell and are thrown at weddings for good luck, the egg shape calling up fertility.)

Italian confetti, candy-coated almonds, remain behind after a wedding in Ravello.
The most coriandoli we’ve come across appeared during a small parade Sunday from Piazza della Repubblica down Via Nazionale.    There were six animated floats, what the Italians call carts, that were expressions of free speech—satirizing some public officials, the European Union, and the new Italian government's belt-tightening and tax-raising.  But what was the most fun and put a smile on everyone’s face was the rampant throwing of coriandoli, while dancing to a samba beat.

A carnevale parade float with Queen Euro.
Some Italians blame the currency for their financial problems.
  She holds streamers that say Lacrime and Sangue, tears and blood. 
While decrying budget cuts and higher taxes that may cut the country's throat,
these folk are smiling because they are about to throw coriandoli at someone.

Giant bags of coriandoli in readiness on the float.

Someone just got a shower.

It's snowing coriandoli...

You can't tell that the little girl in the red dress is laughing, but she is, because she just threw a big handful of coriandoli at Roberto.  And got him.