Tuesday, October 11, 2011


François I, king of France from 1515 to 1547, is a man remembered for extremes, like so many of the rulers of his day. In his early years he was a lecherous hedonist who’s own delusions of grandeur, and dedication to perceived entitlement, embroiled his land in a plethora of wars that bankrupt the country’s coffers and, after initial victories, dealt France defeat after defeat. He was, as well, habitually unfaithful to both his wives, though surprisingly his love affairs were enduring and monogamous. And yet he was, thanks to his mother, one of the most literate, cultured, and spiritual men of his age. His love and devotion to artistic achievement not only lent support to the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Cellini, and Primaticcio, but what began as his personal, lavish collection of artwork, has become what we now refer to as the Louvre.

But all that aside—the good and the bad—the man knew how to party.

François first took part in a Battle of Oranges as a young, victorious king in 1515, infused with the glory of triumph found on the battlefield of Marignano. The frivolity he experienced that festival day in Ivrea, located in northwestern Italy, would make a lasting impression upon the raucous youth, and for years François reproduced the custom at his own court.

The tradition found its genesis, as legend tells it, on the eve of a young girl’s wedding in 1194, when the tyrant Conte Ranieri di Biandrate attempted to exercise his droit de signeur, the right of a nobleman to take the virginity of his serfs’ daughters on the eve of their marriage. As the principal myth contends, this feisty young woman, a miller’s daughter by the name of Violetta, refused to submit, chopping off the lord’s head with a sword she had hidden in her gown in a decisive rebuff. What ensued was nothing less than a revolt of the common man, spurred on by the righteous woman’s courage, as they stormed and fired the palace. Every year since, the citizens celebrate the day, as part of Carnevale di Ivrea, with a Battaglia delle Arance, a Battle of Oranges.

Thousands of townspeople separate into nine combat groups: those in carriages represent the nobles, those on the ground, the usurping townsfolk. The participants courageous enough to epitomize the hated lords are protectively geared in helmet and armor. As they take their places in the bright vehicles, the air fills with chants of denunciation and insurrection, and the pungent aroma of Vin brulé, hot red and spicy wine, a festival staple.

The young girl chosen each year to represent Violetta, as well as the non-participating crowd around her, don Phrygian hats; long and bright red, they were once worn by the emancipated Roman slaves and have since come to represent freedom.

In medieval costume of red, blue and yellow, the attackers line the streets, and station themselves on balconies and in windows serving as modern day battlements.

Horses’ hooves beat upon cobblestones, carriage wheels creak and groan. As the vehicles rush and rumble through the town, the oranges are hurled by the thousands. The splat, squish, and squash of bursting pulp becomes a cacophony, biting citrus odor burns the nose. The ground is littered, then covered in layers of crushed orange. In some of the narrow, confined areas of the battle field, the pulp piles stories high (in modern times snow removal machines are used to remove it). By the time the revolt comes to an end, more than 580,000 pounds of oranges will be reduced to mush and the towns people will reign victorious once more.

Taking place in February, the three day festival ends on Fat Tuesday with a solemn funeral. In France, during the ebullient days of François I, a Battle of Oranges would be called whenever the king was in a feisty mode, when he longed to reminisce upon the exuberant days of his youth, or—perhaps—when he felt an undeniably urge to pelt an annoying nobleman or two.