Here in Bagolino, in the mountains about 65km from Brescia, an unusual Carnival celebration takes place; the feast of the patron saint is the most popular of the year for the Bagossi (as the inhabitants are known). Carnival begins gently on the Sunday and continues virtually without a break through Monday and Tuesday, along the streets and alleyways, between the tall, old, attractive stone and wooden houses, in a deafening, festive din of nailed clogs, muffled falsetto voices from behind masks and violin music. This is a really exciting event for outsiders and has to be experienced rather than simply observed. The star players are are the ballerin (dancers), suonatori (players), and the maschèr (mask-wearers).
The dancers and players only perform on the Monday and Tuesday – incessantly from morning till night. The ballerin wear unusual felt hats on which meters of red silk ribbon have been sewn, decorated with all kinds of jewels arranged in geometric shapes and colorful folded silk ribbons to the lift. The ballerini costume is an ordinary dark party outfit, cleverly and ostentatiously decorated for Carnival with large white cotton shoulder pads dotted with frog decorations and a long, fringed shawls.
The dancers’ faces are hidden by white, expressionless Venetian masks. As the ballerin are all men, the ‘female’ (fomle) masks have two red marks on the cheekbones to distinguish them from the ‘male’ (om) ones. When the time comes, the Capo, or leader of the dancers, separates the om from the fomle and signals that the dancing has to begin. The ballerini start to dance along the streets of the town, stopping under the windows of their girlfriends or other friends, and asking the players to serenade them. The origins of the music date back to an ancient oral tradition; sophisticated and aristocratic, but also reminiscent of Tyrolean melodies. The dancers move their hands in personalized, playful gestures, evocative of the court dances fashionable in past centuries; from time to time their elegant deportment reveals hints of a playful, erotic element.
Six players accompany the dancers with two guitars, two violins, a mandolin and a double bass. In the silence of dawn, it is thrilling to hear the brass trumpet of the Capo echoing through the deserted streets, as he passes to call the group together, or to attend Monday morning mass and find the dancers there too, before Carnival begins. Definitely not to be missed is the closing dance, the ariosa, in the piazza on Tuesday evening, when the ballerin, in a circle, end the dance by removing their masks and embracing each other with tears in their eyes. Alongside this stylish, self-controlled Carnival celebration – and in perfect harmony with it – is another, equally exciting element: the maschér. Men, women and children dressed in old-fashioned costumes with nailed clogs and unrecognizable in masks, shuffle along in couples, in groups or alone, inventing situations, making playful and flirtatious advances, and speaking the old dialect in falsetto voices. You cannot help but join in, play their game or offer them a glass of misto in one of the many typical osterie – but remember, you must never try to remove their masks.
In this joyful, role-playing atmosphere of fairly restrained revelry, our thoughts inevitably turn to good food. The cuisine of Bagolino is typical of the Alpine valleys: in the town itself, or in nearby Pissisidolo, Maniva, Gaver and Valle Dorizzo, you can taste a good mountain-style polenta with sausages, stew, roebuck and venison, and above all, the Bagoss cheese typical of Bagolino, made from the milk of cows that have grazed in the mountains. Its flavor is unique and you’ll find it everywhere, even in the osterie or along the road, perhaps offered by a maschér.
Umberto Tamburini is a member of the editorial staff of Italian Wines