It’s February in Venice and the streets are packed with mysterious figures adorned with jewels, feathers, and masks hovering in the historical alleys of the city. Elegant aristocrats and ladies take over the main roads while little troublemakers and drunken revellers gather outside bars and cafes…
Welcome to Venice’s Carnival, a time for all kinds of forbidden pleasures!
This unique event attracts tourists from all over the world and every year the Carnival transforms the city into a place for pleasure and play, masks and irresponsibility, a great virtuoso of metamorphoses and freedom, a cocktail of parties and fun with its distinctive appointments of entertainment, gastronomy, and music.
But when does the history of the Venice Carnival begin? Let’s embark on a fascinating journey in the ancient celebration of the Venetian Carnival, between history, traditions, and legends…
There are memories of the Carnival festivities in the Venetian Republic since 1094, but the official document that declares Carnival a public holiday dates back to 1296 when people, during Shrove Tuesday, were allowed to mock institutions and patricians. However the very origins of this feast can be found in two ancient traditions: the Latin Saturnalia and the Greek Dionysian cults, two religious festivals that involved the use of masks and symbolic representations to overturn the social order and to unite the human being with nature in a superior harmony, free of social conventions established by man. Venice did nothing but reinterpret these ancient Greek and Roman festivals to meet the needs of the Venetian Republic: the feast became a time when the rigid social hierarchy softened and lascivious activity took over the streets, conferring many cherished freedoms and anonymity in a city with a very rigid social system. For some weeks of the year, anyone could be whoever they wanted to be. This helped to keep a balance by mitigating social tensions and granting a relief valve to the most disadvantaged social classes.
In the eighteenth century, the Carnival flourished and reached its maximum splendour: the shops of masks and costumes multiplied, the attractions of juggling and acrobatics, the theatres and the Commedia dell’Arte, whose costumes remained crystallized in the tradition of Venetian masks. But, but all this freedom did not come without consequences. The history of the Venice Carnival has been indeed characterized by a veritable flourishing of laws seeking to limit its excesses: the noisy parties protected by the anonymity of the masks were threatening the tranquillity and morality of the city and were causing an uncontrolled proliferation of activities where anonymity was important, such as gambling, libertinage, theft, and even murder! The city was forced to take measures that gradually undermined the very essence of the Carnival in Venice and the origins of freedom and equality.
To make matters worse in 1797, in conjunction with foreign domination, the French decided to definitely ban celebrations before Lent for fear that political subversions could be hidden by masks and popular entertainment. The same choice was later adopted by the Austrians and Venetian Carnival became just a clouded dream that survived in the memories of the elderly and in some smaller islands like Murano and Burano until 1979, when the Italian government decided to help Venice reconnect with its festival heritage in order to rejuvenate the culture and economy of the city. So Venice Carnival has grown and grown over the years into one of the world’s most popular celebrations. The new formula has become a success story that has been going on for thirty years thanks also to the charm it exerts and the mystery it continues to possess even now that 900 years have passed since the first feast.
Venetian Carnival nowadays…
Nowadays the Carnival is a majestic event that involves large sponsors, television networks, cultural foundations and attracts people from all over the world eager to celebrate the charm of a world of dancing, jokes, exclusive gala, and romantic encounters. Masked disguises, feasts of indulgent food and drink, rowdy parties last for several weeks ending with Martedi Grasso, or Mardi Gras, which marks the beginning of Lent. But perhaps it is not incorrect to say that, in Venice, the Carnival fever never ceases during the year. A subtle euphoria creeps between the calli of the most beautiful city in the world and grows imperceptibly, rises with the same naturalness of the water, fades the contours of things, suggests mysteries and atmospheres of times gone by.
But the Carnival period is not just a homogeneous succession of days of carefree fun and masks on display. It’s also marked by special days with particular rites and original culinary traditions. Here a few suggestions of some centuries-old traditions that you can still experience today while visiting Venice during the Carnival period:
Flight of the Angel: it seems that it was performed for the first time during the sixteenth century, when a Turkish tightrope walker reached the top of the bell tower walking on a rope attached to the pier, then going down in a spectacular way. Since then, many acrobats have repeated the exciting flight, descending from the bell tower towards the Loggia: the event has been enriched with details such as the launching of gifts to the crowd and the awarding of the artist by the Doge, until the inauspicious fall of the acrobat in the mid-eighteenth century. The angel-acrobat was replaced by a wooden barrel until 2001 when the tradition was restored with real “angels” in flesh and blood, chosen from prominent personalities such as athletes and singers, usually women!
Festa delle Marie: The agenda of this millennial event consists in the choice of twelve Venetian girls, poor and graceful, who celebrated their wedding on the day of the purification of Mary, on February 2nd. On this occasion, the nobles and the doge gave or lent them sumptuous clothes and jewels. It is said that in 943, pirates raided the church and robbed the young girls but the Venetian nobles led by the Doge chased them until they recovered the booty. To commemorate the event, the Marie parade was instituted for the city which is continued today.
Frittelle and Galani: here are the typical sweets of this period! The pancakes are balls of sweet dough (fried of course) and often stuffed with cream or eggnog but also seasoned with raisins and pine nuts, and the “galani”, also called crostoli or chiacchere, a sort of sweet lasagna that is fried and sprinkled with icing sugar.
THE 2020 EDITION OF THE CARNIVAL OF VENICE has started in the Lagoon on Saturday 8th February and will last until Shrove Tuesday on February 25th. For a complete list of the Carnival events please visit the official website
Planning to hire a costume? Here’s a guide to the Carnival Traditional Masks
As said before, Venetian masks have a long history of protecting people’s identity during promiscuous or decadent activities. Originally these distinctive masks were made from papier-mâché and wildly decorated with gems, feathers fur and fancy fabric and served an important social purpose of keeping every citizen on an equal playing field: masked, a nobleman could be mistaken for a servant or vice versa.
Although Venetian Carnival’s cultural production faltered during the Enlightenment, it was officially reintroduced in 1979 when the modern celebration has reinvigorated the art and craft of making Venetian masks.
All Venetian masks may be classified under two major categories:
COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE MASKS: These masks date back to the XVI century and represent characters closely tied to the different cities of Italy personified by professional actors in the Commedia dell’Arte (means Art of Comedy in Italian, a form of improvisational theatre performed on outdoor stages to provide amusement in the form of juggling, acrobatics, and, more typically, humorous plays based on a repertoire of well-known characters). These characters were depicted by actors wearing masks representing regions or towns.
Arlecchino is one of the most popular comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. His mask was black with a large red blemish on his forehead similar to a boil.
Brighella is a comic, masked character from the Commedia dell’Arte, a money-grubbing villain and a partner of Arlecchino. He wore a green half-mask displaying a look of preternatural lust and greed.
Capitan Scaramouche either a young man of adventure or a quite old mariner. His mask is described as having “a long nose, often unambiguously phallic
Colombina (means “little dove” in Italian) is a comic servant character from the Commedia dell’Arte. She usually wears heavy makeup around her eyes or a light mask and carries a tambourine which she can use to fend off the amorous advances of other characters.
Dottore is a local aristocrat and/or doctor of medicine or law or anything else he claims to know about, which is most things. He is an obese man that enjoys the bottle and eating to excess. His mask is unique in that it is the only mask in Commedia dell’Arte to cover only the forehead and nose. It is sometimes black in color or else flesh-toned with a red nose.
Pantalone is a miserly, libidinous, aged character from the Commedia dell’Arte. He traditionally wears a large codpiece to advertise his virility (which everyone around him knows to be long gone) along with a mask with a long hooked nose, a tight red vest, red breeches and stockings, a black cassock, slippers, and a brimless hat.
Pulcinella is a classical character that originated in the Commedia dell’Arte of the 17th century, a hunchback who still chases women. His main characteristic, from which he acquired his name, is his extremely long nose, which resembles a beak.
CARNIVAL MASKS: Venetian Mask is undoubtedly the symbol of Venice and it represents the Venetian spirit projected towards the party, the transgression and the amusement. In the eighteenth century, Venice enjoyed the reputation of having the most famous Carnival in the world. All the social classes took part and the mask represented the trick for the expression of that big collective magic.
Bauta is famous through the Carnival of Venice as it is the main type of mask worn during the Carnival. Bauta was used also on many other occasions as a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status. It was thus useful for a variety of purposes, some of them illicit or criminal, others just personal, such as romantic encounters.
Dama, which presents many elegant variations, corresponds to the ladies of the Cinquecento (the period of Titian) who covered themselves in jewels, expensive clothing, and elaborate coifs. In our days this is probably the most popular and most beautiful mask type used during the Venetian Carnival.
Gatto (means cat in Italian) is a traditional Venetian Carnival mask. Cats were so scarce in Venice that they became the subject of one of the most typical masks.
Jester, or Jolly as a female variant, is a specific type of clown mostly associated with the Middle Ages. Starting in Italy, Jester moved into all of Europe, influencing theatre in Spain, Holland, Germany, Austria, England, and especially, France. Jesters typically wore brightly coloured clothing in a motley pattern. Their hats were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points, each of which had a jingle bell at the end.
Moretta is a traditional Venetian mask. This mask was worn by Venetian women all year round. Moretta is an oval mask of black velvet that was usually worn by women visiting convents. It was invented in France and rapidly became popular in Venice as it brought out the beauty of feminine features. The mask was finished off with a veil.
Volto (means face in Italian) also known as the Citizen mask, because it was worn by the common people during all Holidays since ancient times: S. Marco’s day, Sensa feast day, S. Vito and Modesto, S. Stefano festivities are only a few examples.
Dottore Peste is a modern Venetian Carnival mask. This mask has a very unique history. One of the worst scourges for the city of Venice was without any doubt the Plague, which struck the city on several occasions. Plague Doctor isn’t a real mask but was a disguise used by local plague doctors who went on visits to people afflicted with plague wearing this strange costume. Dottore Peste outfit consisted of a hat to show that the man was a doctor, a mask to protect the face which included crystal eyes to protect the wearer’s eyes and the beak which was stuffed with spices or herbs to purify the air that the doctor breathed.
Now pick up a mask and take part in one of the most famous Italian Carnivals!