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    History of Rio Carnival Floats and Adornments

    Posted on 21 March 2019

    Some of the most important artistic elements within the Brazilian-Carnaval parades are the Carnival allegories and adornments.  Both are essential do the development and illustration of the parade plot theme.  These aesthetic elements, along with the merry-makers themselves and the drums, characterize the carnival parade in Brazil in a quintessential way.  Without them, the samba-school Carnaval producers would certainly be unable to “tell their story”, similarly the way play writers use scenes, costumes and props.  Along the development of the parades, both allegories and adornments faced a monumental development in terms of complexity, luxury and use of technology.  They have become so important they soon became important judging criterion within the parade contests, already in 1938.

    Below, one of the first registered Carnival Floats in Brazil, 1920!

    first carnival floats

    For the sake of better understanding, we have translated from Portuguese the word Alegorias to Allegories, in English.   The second term, “adereços”, we will be translating to adornments; since we feel this word best represents its general meaning.  Some researchers in English have used the term pageantry for “alegorias”, in Portuguese.  We don´t agree with this use since pageantry has a much broader term.  Also as to facilitate comprehension, 'Allegories' is the term generally referred to the Floats, or allegorical cars.  The term 'adornments' is related to the props, signboards and portable items carried by the parade members, which aid in the construction of the visual scenario of the story plot.

    Below, an example of a Float at Brazilian Carnaval.  These allegorical cars  help the carnaval producer tell the plot-story within the parade and are a contest evaluation criterion.  Some floats are extremely rich and they carry people, statues, and other luxurious sculptures.

    Example of Allegories

    Photo Credit: Jaime Silva - Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro

    Early days

    Being inspired in the Sociedade Carnavalescos and in the ranchos carnavalescos, the samba schools created their Alegorias and adereços as illustrative aesthetic elements for the themes.  As the themes were just clearly defined in the 50’s, carnaval allegories and the adornments took long time to become incorporated in the carnaval parade structure itself.  

    In the early days of parades, there was strong prejudice against the use of allegories in the samba schools, due to the Sociedade Carnavalescas, which were singularly characterized by loose allegories.  The samba school Vizinha Faladeira for example, which in the carnival of 1935 had a huge caramanchão, (pergola of flowers with horses - made of papier-mâché - in a wagon), suffered strong pressure from its co-sisters before the judging commission.  The 1938 parade Regulation added a specific term prohibiting allegories similar to those used by the "Sociedades Carnavalescas".

    Not only the Floats are considered in this criterion.  Props and portable adornments are also evaluated by the Carnaval judging panel.  In the picture below, we see Thailand´s Khatakali Theater being represented by costumes, props and make-up.

    Adornments carnaval

    Photo Credit: Jaime Silva - Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro

    In the 30’s, the allegories were nothing but timid pergolas and some papier-mâché dolls.  The innovations were on count of each school.  For example, in 1932, Portela brought the theme (a sketch) Sua Majestade o Samba (His Highness, the Samba), which had a component named Eurico as a symbol of the samba in an allegory, this character was idealized by Antônio Caetano ( artist, carnival producer, one of Portela´s Samba-School founders) in the following way: the body was shaped by a barrel (bass drum), the head was the pandero, the ears were the tambourines, and the arms were the “sticks”.  Important to note that note only the floats are considered within this criterion, props - portable elements the merry makers carry during the parade - are carefully evaluated.

    Allegories 1940-today

    In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the allegories were mounted under simple structures made of iron, wood, and ball bearing wheels; the dolls were made of papier-mâché and colored by iron oxide pigments.

    In the 1970’s, new materials like plastic paint and varnish were introduced.  Later, polystyrene and glass wool, which provided consistency and protection (against rain) to the works created by sculptors, were brought on.   The use of glitter, the replacement of the bases of the cars (wood and ball bearing wheels) by chassis with stringer, wood and rubber wheels, the use of modern machines – all of this was improving the allegories which stopped being fragile elements, which was dismounted in the avenue when it was raining, and became real resistant allegories unlike the ones used at Sociedades Carnavalescas days. Also in the 70’s, Fernando Pamplona’s team in Salgueiro Samba-School produced the tripods (light adornments built on tripod bases) to substitute the signboards they used to carry.

    Allegories have evolved tremendously.  Today, the use of "living" sculptures added a human dimension to these gigantic carnaval floats in Brazil, as seen below from Unidos da Tijuca Samba School. Some of these floats today can cost up to USD 200.000,00.

    Allegories Example

    Photo Credit: Alexandre Vidal / AGENCIA FOTO BR  - Protected by Law 


    The carnival allegories and adornments are illustrative aesthetic elements from the theme: resources that must contribute for a better clarification, a better “understanding” of the theme. They must be integrated to the carnaval costumes (and vice-versa).   The allegories and adornments must obligatorily have a meaning and translate the content, sum of the parts that compose the overall plot-theme. 

    Wondered and produced by popular and/or erudite plastic artists, they are a rich demonstration of the creativity, capability of creation, and improvising.  Some foreign artists note that Alegorias and Adereços embodied at carnaval parades represent one of the best and revealing examples of the aesthetic quality of the Brazilian craftsmanship.

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