The Age-Old Food Fight That Beats an Italian Town to a Pulp

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It looked as if a war was coming. It was. One Sunday last month, in a northern Italian town called Ivrea, the facades of historic buildings were covered with plastic sheeting and nets. Storefront windows had been fortified with plywood and tarps. And in several different piazzas, hundreds of wooden crates had appeared, walls of them stacked eight feet high and even farther across. The crates looked like barricades but were actually arms depots. Inside them were oranges. Oranges, the fruit.

Over the next three days, 8,000 people in Ivrea would throw 900 tons of oranges at one another, one orange at a time, while tens of thousands of other people watched. They would throw the oranges very hard, very viciously, often while screaming profanities at their targets or yowling like Braveheart, and they would throw the oranges for hours, until their eyebrows were matted with pulp and their shirts soaked through. But they would also keep smiling as they threw the oranges, embracing and joking and cheering one another on, exhibiting with their total beings a deranged-seeming but euphoric sense of abandon and belonging — a freedom that was easy to envy but difficult to understand.

The main square in Ivrea, near the end of Carnival.

The Battle of the Oranges is an annual tradition in Ivrea and part of a larger celebration described by its organizers as “the most ancient historical Carnival in Italy.” Three years ago, things kicked off as they always do, with a few initial hours of hurling and splattering, but then the rest of the battle was abruptly called off. Covid had surfaced in the region, and after an emergency meeting of government officials that afternoon, the decision was made to shut the festival down. Several people in Ivrea told me that, as two more pandemic years passed in which no oranges could be thrown, they grew concerned that something bad would happen in the community — that without this catharsis, a certain pent-up, sinister energy would explode. But it didn’t. They’d made it. And now, the scent of stockpiled citrus was mixing with the musk of centuries-old masonry. The arancieri, or orange throwers, were standing by.

Ivrea’s arancieri are organized into nine teams, each with a different flag, logo, captain and uniform. They have names like the Devils, the Mercenaries, the Black Panthers, Death. As 2 p.m. approached, the arancieri crammed shoulder to shoulder in their assigned piazzas, each waiting to do battle with 47 brigades of other orange throwers who would come marauding through the city in horse-drawn carts. Many had been partying until 2 or 3 a.m. the night before, and many were drinking that morning too; the city was awash in disposable cups of mulled wine and Bombardino, a boozy, eggnoggy concoction, served warm. They were predominately men, especially young men, though there were many women, too. There were also older people who’d been participating in the Battle of the Oranges since they were the age of those young people. Some had taken those young people to their first battles in strollers, 20-odd years ago. (One woman showed me a photo with pride.) In a neighborhood known as the Borghetto, a team called the Tuchini polished off compostable bowls of pasta in their small piazza, waiting in their green jerseys with poofy sleeves and lace-up fronts. Over their heads hung a banner: “In the heart of the battle, we are never alone.”

Here’s what happened next: The atmosphere in the Borghetto contracted like a fist. Around the corner, the first carriage approached, barreling across the cobblestone bridge that connects the neighborhood to the rest of the city; you could hear the low rumble of its wheels on stone, the bells on the horses’ bridles jingling madly. As soon as the carriage appeared, the fusillade and the screaming started simultaneously. Much of the crowd rushed to its flanks. Inside the carriage, about half a dozen people dressed as medieval soldiers, their heads and faces disguised by creepy leather helmets adorned with braids, were already sidearming oranges mercilessly with both hands, their thick forearms pumping like pistons, their emptied fists reloading from the troughs at their waists while the opposite fists discharged. They chucked oranges in a kind of balletic flow-state, the brutal apparatuses of their torsos swiveling efficiently but hard. They threw straight down, punishing the people only two feet below — who, in turn, threw relentlessly upward at them. Oranges sprayed through the air omnidirectionally like sawdust, like sparks.

An arancieri (orange thrower).

The carriage came to a full stop at the center of the square. The battle reached a higher intensity. Oranges splattered off the soldiers’ heads and rolled off their backs in sheets. (The scene is so chaotic that once, a decade ago, a thrower in one of the carriages had a heart attack, but no one noticed his body slumped there until they were getting out of the carriage.) When the carriage started moving again, exiting the piazza, the die-hards gave chase. They yelled at it through a froth of spittle and pith. In the calm that followed, people scampered around to claim oranges off the ground that looked intact enough to be relaunched. Then the next carriage arrived, and everything that just happened happened again.

I had the opportunity to participate that first afternoon, though I’d been given zero instructions or tips. Ordinarily, arancieri must register with a team weeks in advance and pay the roughly 120-euro fee, but someone from the Historic Carnival of Ivrea Foundation, which organizes the event, had simply gifted me an emasculatingly oversize Tuchini jersey and wished me luck. I took up a position on the periphery, tossing the occasional orange from long range, feeling giddy when my first one thwacked into a soldier’s helmet and liquefied spectacularly. What I hadn’t understood, though, is that many people were winging oranges at the carriages from similar distances — and from all directions. Tracers from this circular firing squad were sailing over the carriage or streaking past the bodies on board and whizzing straight at the people on the opposite side: catching shoulders, forearms, temples, mouths. Seconds into the first skirmish, I took one off the crown of my head. A few minutes later, a woman crossed in front of me, hollering to a companion that she’d been struck in the eye. I looked down to record that little moment in my notebook: a catastrophic mistake. I never saw the orange coming, and it struck in precisely the worst possible spot. Doubled over, staggering and groaning, panting and panicked, I worried it might be serious — life-altering, even. I pictured having to explain the injury to a urologist or, worse, a reconstructive surgeon specializing in intimate parts. It took many hours for my insides to feel right.

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From then on, I concentrated on watching and dodging. Over the next three days, I’d see arancieri in demonic face paint, in body paint, and one with a bull’s-eye scrawled on his bald head with the words “Throw it here.” I’d watch a grown woman duck for cover behind her much smaller, much older mother, both giggling as the oranges rained down, and a slender, deadpan-faced guy walk through a piazza as the next carriage approached with a cardboard sign that said: “My father is the first one in the carriage. Kill him.”

I’d watch people nonchalantly rolling cigarettes just steps from the crossfire. A group of battered young people walking arm in arm, saturated with juice, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” in imperfect but exuberant English. I’d witness several so-called “baptisms,” in which a first-timer, or an arancieri otherwise perceived to be weak, kneels on the ground while a tight circle of his teammates whips overripe oranges at his face from inches away. “Is that blood?” I’d hear one young man ask another, examining his left ear. “It’s blood orange,” the friend clarified. Though I’d see plenty of actual blood too: crusting under nostrils, catching the sunlight on a dark, puffy lip. And from time to time, whenever the throwers aboard the carriages momentarily ran out of oranges, I’d watch them, one by one, raise their empty palms, remove their leather helmets and make a magnificent gesture of clapping for the arancieri on foot — who, just as graciously, returned their applause. There was a lot I found alarming about the Battle of the Oranges or that made me recoil. But this touched me every time: Everyone throwing and being thrown at, working together to have a good time.

That said, even minutes into that first skirmish in the Borghetto, I truly couldn’t imagine how everyone could keep it up for three more hours, then do it all again for two more days. The emotions being unleashed, the outpouring of ferocity mixed with joy, seemed unsustainable — a once-in-a-lifetime rush. Besides, the ground was already covered in an electric yellow mash. The juice bled out. The slurry congealed. Soon there would be three to four inches of it carpeting Ivrea’s piazzas end to end, mounds and streaks all over the adjoining streets. It was enough to suction your boots in place if you stood in it too long, enough to close a school district, if the oranges were snow. And when you put your foot down into it, it burped upward like a simmering marinara and splotched the ankles of your pants.

This material turned gray, then brown, in the afternoon air, all while other, fresher oranges kept exploding off foreheads, faces, cheeks and chests and touching down. At any given moment, you’d see bright, recognizable chunks of citrus smushed in at the surface of the mess. It looked exactly like vomit. It looked as if the city itself had thrown up. And somewhere in there, surely, were also pockets of manure from the horses, which, held stationary at the center of the battles, could be seen baring their teeth, then taking a crap.

This was the muck that Ivrea’s street-cleaning machinery would be left to confront, three evenings straight. And though the heroic little brush-trucks succeeded in sucking up the bulk of it, they couldn’t clean everything. They compressed the remnants into the channels between the cobblestones and left a colorless scum coating the surface of the town. It was superslick. Many people — delicate-looking older people, mothers with infants strapped to their chests — tread carefully without complaint. Others took running starts, turned sideways and enjoyed the ride.

During the final moments of the battle one afternoon, I watched a middle-aged man cross a corner of the town’s largest piazza holding a glass of red wine — an actual glass. He’d just taken a sip when, suddenly, his feet skidded outward and he crashed on his side. He landed facing the wrong direction; he did not see the carriage turn the corner and bear down right behind him. A younger man from the arancieri team Death, his black uniform drenched, his head topped with a tangle of brightly dyed hair, dashed off the sidewalk, grabbed the fallen man by the arm and dragged him out of the way of the horses at the very last second.

The man glided frictionlessly, hydroplaning like an air-hockey puck. Finally rising to his feet, he examined his glass and found it mostly full. He’d managed to hold it aloft the entire time. There were hardly any streaks up the sides.

Stefano, 28, an orange thrower from Team Death.

But why? Why oranges? Why throw oranges? Why?

Eight centuries ago, more or less, present-day Ivrea was ruled by a despot, the Marquis Ranieri di Biandrate. The marquis was despicable, stingy and cruel. He customarily abducted peasant women on their wedding nights and raped them. One night, however — according to a mishmash of history and legend — a miller’s daughter named Violetta managed to fight him off. Before long, she appeared in the window of the tyrant’s castle by firelight, holding his decapitated head in one hand. A revolt ignited — instantly. Violetta’s defiance incited the populace to burn the palace to the ground, freeing themselves to do whatever they pleased. And what pleased them, apparently, was to hurl oranges at one another annually for three days straight.

Sort of. I’m skipping over 30-odd generations of local history in which the tradition complexified and evolved, before assuming its current form in the years after World War II. Initially, in the Middle Ages, the people of Ivrea threw beans at one another. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that they first weaponized oranges, assimilating another, local tradition wherein girls on balconies tossed oranges at boys they liked. But whatever the foodstuff, the idea has always been to simultaneously commemorate Ivrea’s rebellion and celebrate the freedom it brought; the burly warriors on the carriages are stand-ins for the marquis’s feudal army, while the arancieri on foot, who rout them out of the piazzas again and again, represent the rampaging populace. At some point, the tradition was also fused to the traditional celebration of Carnival, which allows for similarly unrestrained raucousness and heavy drinking in the days leading up to Lent. So, to sum up: it’s live-action role-playing. It’s historical re-enactment. It’s Mardi Gras held at Colonial Williamsburg with head wounds and fruit.

In fact, the orange-throwing is only the most attention-grabbing ritual in a sprawl of ancillary Carnival traditions in Ivrea. The whole program begins many weeks earlier, with a ceremonial parade in early January, then proceeds through one fastidiously prescribed rite after another, such as a gathering of 10 children convened on “the Saturday before the third to last Sunday before Carnival.” I struggled to follow the Dungeons and Dragons-like complexity of it all, even the stuff happening while I was in town: the 11 separate bean feasts; a ceremony in which a recently married couple in each of Ivrea’s neighborhoods dig a hole; the 30-foot poles covered in dried heather and juniper that are placed at the center of certain piazzas and ignited into frightening pillars of flame. (“You don’t explain Carnival,” one woman told me. “You live it.”) I just knew, every morning, to put on my berretto frigio — a long, red stocking cap that spectators must wear at all times during Carnival while within Ivrea’s city walls. The berretto frigio identifies you as a supporter of self-determination and freedom. Walk around without a berretto frigio, and the arancieri may attack. “You will be targeted,” I heard one of Carnival’s organizers warn a reporter who’d arrived in a stylish red headband instead of the hat.

An orange thrower from Team Death taking aim.

Presiding over all of this is a coterie of characters plucked haphazardly from other periods in Ivrea’s history, parading around in antiquarian costumes. Each year, different high-status local people are given the honor of playing a particular role. These include the General, who is granted symbolic control over the city for the duration of Carnival by Ivrea’s actual mayor, and the Assistant Grand Chancellor, who records the successful completion of each persnickety tradition in a large, fancy book. (These dignitaries also help fund the festivities in exchange for their appointments, with some of them cutting checks for as much as 30,000 euros.) The unquestioned star of Carnival, however, is the Vezzosa Mugnaia, or Charming Miller’s Daughter, an embodiment of Violetta, who sparked the original revolt. The Mugnaia spends much of Carnival crisscrossing the city in a golden chariot, wearing a white gown and green sash, heaving armfuls of candy and flowers overboard to the crowds. Everywhere she goes, the fighting stops and hundreds of people shriek, “Viva La Mugnaia” and basically lose their minds.

The identity of each year’s Mugnaia is kept secret until the night before the first orange battle. Shortly after arriving in town, I watched from Ivrea’s packed central piazza as a congress of men in brass-studded coats and white wigs introduced her from the balcony of the city hall. They shouted the name Elena Bergamini in Bardus, and a dark-haired woman appeared in an adjacent window, waving both arms feverishly back and forth. (As a greeting it had a bizarre intensity. She looked as if she were trying to stop an airplane taxiing recklessly toward the wrong gate.) The crowd turned rapturous. Her name would not have been familiar to most of those cheering in the piazza — Bergamini in Bardus is a former concert clarinetist and mother of two who works for a nearby municipality — but she was their Mugnaia now, and that was enough.

Eventually, the Mugnaia climbed into her chariot and exited the square. Everyone filed out behind her. Suddenly: a parade. There were drummers and fife players, screeching away on their wooden flutes, and the General in his military regalia, his hand held in a firm salute, as though he were an oil painting of himself. There were brigades of soldiers with muskets and spears; the arancieri teams, dancing and chanting beneath their towering flags; and waves of ordinary, elated Ivreans and outsiders, including — somewhere in the barely-moving logjam of bodies toward the back — me. The pace of the procession was glacial. The claustrophobia was intense. But I was the only one who seemed put out. I’d struggle to exit the parade and go around it, only to get stuck in the parade again.

Jubilation as Team Death was named the winner of Carnival 2023.

This became a theme. Parades of various sizes and complexities snaked everywhere through Ivrea’s streets during Carnival, and as I hustled to catch the end of some ceremony or keep various appointments in town, I’d be blocked or absorbed by them again and again. Parades crossed my path perpendicularly. They clogged the road ahead. Once, I was trapped behind a parade only to have it suddenly turn around and come straight at me. It was an odd thing to keep happening to a person during a celebration of freedom, but I simply could not outfox the parades; they seemed to get bigger, longer and slower whenever I tried. Another time — I swear — a parade appeared to magically regenerate and pass in front of me twice, as though the parade were a Möbius strip. One night I was having a pleasant conversation in the lobby of city hall and didn’t notice the uniformed brass players and soldiers amassing on the front staircase behind me — forming a parade, trapping me inside.

Soon, I’d tense up at the sound of distant fifes. It felt preposterous, like a metaphor, like a Kafka story: a lowly office clerk in a European city who, every time he leaves his apartment, is encircled and thwarted by ceremonial parades. Except — this couldn’t have been clearer — I wasn’t the protagonist. I was nothing. My autonomy and desires were subsumed by a tradition that belonged to, and was beloved by, everyone else.

Every morning during the Battle of the Oranges, new black eyes bloomed all over town. Under other eyes, huge, empurpled cushions of flesh rose up. Still others were bloody where they should have been white.

These were signs of valor in Ivrea. According to several team leaders I spoke to, people wanted to get bruised. In fact, you’d periodically spot some gung-ho arancieri standing stock-still behind a carriage with his face raised toward the throwers to invite a direct hit, like a man who’d been confined indoors for years, hypnotized by the heat of the sun. And among the many patches I’d spot sewn onto people’s jerseys was one with the same figure used to indicate genders on bathroom doors, raising an arm to shield its face. A thick red line ran through the illustration: It wasn’t allowed.

By the time the last orange was thrown, 469 people would seek medical attention from the on-site paramedics, though looking around, you got the sense that these weren’t necessarily the most severely injured people, just the complainers. And yet, what I almost never saw during the Battle of the Oranges was any public expression of pain. Only once: a young boy running into his mother’s arms, wailing, after being tagged in the eye. (Consider not only the pain of the impact but the sting of the juice.) My theory was that jubilation was a powerful analgesic. Everyone’s pain receptors were short-circuited by delight. Even among those at the edges of the battle, even among the spectators, there was a dispassionate acceptance of the pandemonium that felt unreal. There was the young woman, struck suddenly by citrusy shrapnel, casually wiping down her cheek in the middle of a conversation; the man and woman snuggling tenderly with their backs turned to a carriage, her head taking shelter in the crook of his neck; the parents without fear for their children; the children without fear for themselves.

Four days in Ivrea hadn’t desensitized me to the unusualness of any of it. For me, it was unrelatable, alienating at times. Even many Italians outside Ivrea find the Battle of the Oranges embarrassing or uncivilized. Every year, criticisms arise. There is concern for the welfare of the horses pulling the carriages, disgust with all the wasted food. I’d read about steps taken to address these issues — there’s now a program to turn the spent oranges into compost and biofuel, for example — but the Historic Carnival of Ivrea Foundation did not brag about these advancements the way an American festival would. At one point, Stefano Ampollini, who runs public relations for the foundation and has been a fanatical arancieri himself since boyhood, told me, “What we say in Ivrea is that the only orange that’s wasted is the one we don’t throw.” And when I mentioned to him that I’d seen that one boy get hit in the eye and start crying, Ampollini said, “Yes?” and moved on.

An orange thrower who was part of the Black Panthers team.

Tourists kept arriving — still mostly other Italians; relatively few, it seemed, from abroad — and they definitely weren’t unwelcome. But there was little signage or material around to orient them, and shockingly few souvenirs for them to buy. Given the perilous environment, given how much locals needed those four days to provide an all-consuming torrent of pleasure, it seemed like anyone else was kind of in the way. Entertaining outsiders wasn’t the point, nor was appeasing critics or massaging the optics of young men hurting one another in the year 2023. It seemed to me that the point of the Carnival was exquisitely simple. It was a game Ivreans loved playing together, for its own sake and primarily among themselves.

This hit me most powerfully while stuck in one last parade. It was the final procession of the festival, a somber, late-night funeral march through the medieval city to mourn Carnival’s end. I genuinely thought I’d outsmarted this parade and beat it to its destination, but before I knew what was happening, I was herded onto the side of the street with a crush of other parade-watchers — a blob of puffy jackets, some of them blotched with dried pulp.

The mood was solemn. The aesthetic was spare. There were no horses this time, no brass bands or drums — just the sad, out-of-tune quavering of a few wooden flutes while the General and his entourage approached on foot. The crowd did not make a sound. Their reverence seemed total. When a phone rang, it was stifled. When a long rubbery fart sounded in the stillness, not a single person laughed.

A fragile equilibrium was being maintained, between the seriousness and unseriousness of Carnival, between how crazy the thing looked and how meaningful it felt. I loved the Battle of the Oranges for pulling that off. It was the ugliest beautiful thing I ever saw.

The ammunition in the Piazza del Rondolino, one of the battlefields.

Additional video assistance from Luca Nestola.

Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author, most recently, of a book of essays, “Serious Face.” He last wrote about a Covid oral-history project. Andrea Frazzetta is a photographer from Milan. He has worked on many Voyages Issues, documenting places like the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia and the first long-distance hiking trail in Kurdistan.

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.

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