The ancient city of Nice on the French Riviera, sandwiched between Cannes and Antibes to the west and the principality of Monaco to the east, is a year-round resort and thriving commercial center. It is a city famous for many things, perhaps the most illustrious being the carnival that has taken place in February each year since the Middle Ages.
The most widely-believed origin of the word "carnival" is from the old Italian "carne levare", meaning "away with meat". By the Middle Ages, the people of Nice, before fasting forty days, as appropriate for the Catholic tradition of Lent, enjoyed rich and plentiful dining.
To enjoy this time of festivity even more, every excess was permitted. It was also a time for making fun of everything and everybody at everyone’s expense. This involved the elaborate charade of concealment behind masks and disguises until Mardi Gras.
The first reference to a carnival in Nice in the history books dates back to 1294 when Charles d’Anjou, Count of Provence, mentions having spent "some joyous days of carnival" in the city. But In the 17th century excesses were brought under control by the "Abbés des Fous" whose role was to regulate the population. At this time, under the influence of the famous Venice Carnival, balls become more common that street entertainment.
During the major political upheavals during France’s eventful history, such as the French revolution or the first empire, the carnival was put on hold temporarily.
However, the first carnival parade, which is typical of the modern carnival, was inaugurated in 1830 in honor of Charles Felix and Marie-Christine, sovereigns of the Piedmont Sardinia Kingdom. The parade involved a display of thirty carriages before the king and Queen to announce the start of the carnival.
The carnival in the form we know it today was started in 1873, with the founding of the "Festival Committee" which would organize the carnival and massively increase it in size under the patronage of the city’s governors. Now parades and floats, paying stands and a more organized event made their appearance.
It was at this time that one of the carnival’s most spectacular and fascinating features was born. The local artist Alexis Mosssa together with his son Gustav Adolf brought a surprising particularity, at once both fabulous and grotesque – the now famous giant models which have become its hallmark.
The first Flower Procession was started in 1876 on the Promenade des Anglais. The same location has been used ever since and it has developed into a glorious show, an important part of today’s carnival.
Nice carnival always tries to be topical in its annual choice of theme, if indeed a little irreverent, in keeping with the spirit if the original carnival. Cartoonists and artists from around participate in creating some of the designs used in the parades. In 2002, to celebrate the King of Euroland, artists created their vision of the introduction of the Euro. In 2004, the artistic requirements became even higher as the carnival producers engaged several sculptors to further improve the originality of the floats.
For the 2005 carnival, the model creators were all trained to use "plastazote", a thin foam that made highly intricate but lightweight designs possible. The result was the creation of many giant heads.
Carnival themes are becoming increasingly more philosophical and satirical in nature. The 122nd edition of the carnival in 2006 has the theme "King of Dupes", intending to illustrate the paradoxes of contemporary society where the real and the virtual mix, to the extent that their respective boundaries are no longer discernible, creating a sort of showbiz culture. Here the carnival parades become "virtual moons of green cheese" and the flower parades are made of "fantasy and illusion".
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