Although Venice is famous for its glistening waterways and ancient bridges, it is also famous for its seemingly perpetual bustle, attracting a year-long procession of crowds and tourists from around the world. And yet, if you happen to arrive in this beautiful, historic city during the weeks of the Carnival - in Italian, Carnevale - you will find the narrow walkways and an bridges more animated still. From late February to early March, Italy’s north-eastern corner is aglow with vibrant energy as locals and tourists alike partake in carnival festivities. Historically, these festivities were renowned for their transgression of social norms; the married could play the single, the poor could play the rich, and the citizens of Venice could cast off their true identities in search of boundless pleasure. Nowadays, the celebrations are slightly less debaucherous, although nonetheless fervent.
The Origins of Carnevale
Venice's annual winter-time Carnival celebrations first began in 1162, over 850 years ago, when the Republic of Venice triumphed in battle over the Patriarch of Aquileia. The good tidings spread like wildfire along Venice's network of canals, and the people of the city gathered in San Marco Square to celebrate the victory. During the Renaissance, which began in the 14th century, Carnival celebrations became an official, annual event. Two weeks of every year were exclusively dedicated to the festival and the end of the revelry was marked by Shrove Tuesday in the Christian calendar.
In a city with such a rigid system, Carnival fever conferred many cherished freedoms to those bound by strict social regulations, the most important of which was anonymity. Indeed, all carnival-goers wore masks in order to hide their identity; yet in doing so, they were also able to create a new identity, existing outside of conventional, personal expectations.
The traditional masks worn by Venetian residents at this time were almost always extravagant, and commissioned to reflect the chosen identity and interests of the wearer. One of the most common designs for men was the baùta which consisted of a white mask under a black hat and a black cloak. Historical records show that this type of dress was also used outside of the carnival period in acts of anonymous courting.
The historical tendency to paint all participants with the same brush is a trap we must be careful of falling into, however: despite the evident personal freedoms conferred to Carnival participants at this time, women, by contrast, were regarded much less liberally. Their most frequently worn costume was called moretta, consisting of a dark velvet mask that was held in place by a button in the mouth. The wearer was unable to speak, and so this mask was also called moretta muta, (meaning mute), emphasising the almost expected, passive silence inherent in womens’ roles at the time. However, many other styles existed, from the comedic to the elaborately ornate. After all: A Carnevale, ogni scherzo vale! Anything goes at Carnival time... even dogs.
The End of an Era
When the Austrian Emperor, Francis II, annexed the Venetian Republic towards the end of the 18th century, the festival was deemed illegal and the wearing of traditional Venetian masks was prohibited. In many ways, it was a subversive time, and we can get a sense of just how much so through some of the regulations that were instated. A law in the 12th century outlawed the visiting of convents while disguised, while another forbade the practice of gambling anonymously. In the 1500s, female courtesans even petitioned the government because men dressed in costume were becoming too popular with their client base. There were of course, however, those who opposed the various bans and thus, the tradition of Carnevale carried on secretly in the homes of many Venetians.
The Resurrection of Carnevale
1979 was the year that the Italian government once again ushered in the tradition of Carnevale as a celebration of both creativity and culture. Now, the streets of Venice are reinvigorated with the vibrant colours of the festival come February and March each year, with loud music and bright costumes in abundance. In this short space of time, wedged between the turning of winter and the blossoming of spring, Carnival manages to attract about 3 million tourists - more than 10 times the current population of Venice - and remains, as in the past, a truly magnificent spectacle to behold.
The carnival usually lasts a couple of weeks, but the most noteworthy days on the festival’s calendar lie between the final Thursday and the very last day, Tuesday. The days are called giovedì grasso and martedì grasso, (literally meaning ‘fat Thursday’ and ‘fat Tuesday’) and are directly contrasted with the following Ash Wednesday that signifies the beginning of Lent, a period traditionally dedicated to fasting. Carnevale also awards the person with the best masked costume towards the end of the festivities, on the very same stage that is used for plays and other performances. There are also, of course, parties and feasts on the streets of Venice, celebrating the city’s gastronomic and cultural heritage.
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