You can’t talk about Venice without mentioning in the same breath the Venice’s Carnival which is the most suggestive and captivating event of its kind in the world. There’s no greater symbol of Venice’s Carnival than its masks which somehow veil the city in mystery, evoking past centuries of fun, folly and lavish excess.
Rather than waning, the popularity of the age-old tradition of Carnival is if anything, growing. The first mention of Carnival was more than 900 years ago when in 1094, the Duke of Venice, Vitale Falier, proclaimed a day dedicated to public fun, naming it “Carnevale”. It took another two centuries however, in 1296, for the day before lent to become the designated public holiday to celebrate Carnival. However the origins of Carnival actually date back even further to ancient times when worshipers of Dionysus and Roman pagans celebrating the diety Saturn would hold festivities to mark the end of winter and coming of spring.
But exactly how did this festival in Venice actually come into being? And why celebrate Carnival in this fashion? Well, initially the Republic of Venice, known as “la Serenissima”, wanted to give its citizens and visitors a chance to release tension and let their hair down. To achieve that goal it created a festival complete with music and dancing at society balls, with the intriguing addition of guests donning masks to conceal their identities and class. (Here-in lies the origin of the expression “Hello Lady Mask.” Such a greeting was necessary because people’s identities were completely hidden from view.)
Anybody could be anyone, rich or poor, and even gibes and mockeries towards the nobility and city leaders were tolerated. As time passed, these festivities expanded to become part of the Venetian fabric. In fact, by the 17th century Carnival was actually extended to continue for six months a year. During these months, sought after parties and events were staged, like the Gondola parade of the city’s nobility, the magnificant Flight of the Angel and many other exhibitions and shows which were found on every corner of the city from St Mark’s Square to the Schiavoni promenade.
The festivities were designed to promote excess, danger and intrigue which was metaphorically symbolised by the wearing of masks to hide one’s identity, allowing bad behaviour with impunity. There were those who cross-dressed as women or clergymen to enter monasteries and churches with the intention of commiting forbidden acts in sacred places. Some dressed in Nuns’ habits to hide dangerous weapons to steal other people’s masks. And even the city’s prostitutes (who were commonly accepted in Venice although regulated to avoid the spread of Syphllis) took advantage of the occasion to flout the conventions and rules that during the rest of the year they were bound by.
In all, too many parties, too many pranks, too many mockeries and too much of everything! It took nothing less than the intervention of emperor Napolean to curb the excessive behaviour. In 1797 The Venetian Republic fell into the hands of Napolean who swiftly prohibited the wearing of masks. The ban wasn’t enforced however at private parties or for guests of the Cavalchina Ball at “La Fenice” theatre. But the real essence of Carnival, designed to allow all citizens, no matter their class or status, to let go and revel in excess was lost forever. The traditional Carnival ceased to exist, a reflection of how demoralised and disillusioned the citizens of Venice had become.
Afterwards, even the Austrian occupiers of Venice decided to enforce the ban, because like their predecessor Napoleon, they feared rebellion and civic disorder. For almost two centuries, the centre of Venice didn’t see masks and Carnival parties. Only the islands of Burano and Murano continued the tradition although in a much quieter fashion.
But luckily this grand and audacious Carnival wasn’t consigned to the dustbin of history. In 1979, 200 years after its cessation, a coalition of Carnival “true believers” including citizens’ associations, the Venice Council, La Fenice theatre, The Venice Biennale and Venetian tourist bodies succesfully resurrected the tradition. That year, they organised 11 days of festivities leaving citizens and tourists free to improvise and embrace, in whichever way they saw fit, the spirt and essence of Carnival.
Thanks to their initiative, today we can once again walk through the streets and across the bridges of the Lagoon during the days of Carnival and be enticed by the traditional masks and costumes of a bygone era. You’ll see the Bauta mask which comprises what are known as the “Tabarro, Larva and Moretta”. The Tabarro is a traditional black cape, on top of which one places a tricorn hat and then fixes a mask. Men wear a white mask called a Larva while women wear a black velvet one, adorned by either a veil or hat, called a Moretta.
If you’re intending to visit Venice’s Carnival, be aware that festivities last only 10 days (those prior to Lent.) Every day something happens and in every angle of this splendid city you’ll find shows and exciting initiatives. Our tip is to take a good look at the program before arriving so you don’t miss a single event, party or ball (like the mysterious and fascinating one held in the rooms of Palazzina G, complete with intrigue, masks and sublime fun).