The Venice Carnival
The Venice Carnival or Carnevale di Venezia, is an intriguing mix of gorgeous masquerades and events, street fairs, high-end balls and a tourist magnet attracting some 3 million visitors; all set against the backdrop of this wonderful historic city. It gives visitors a romanticised impression of what life was like several centuries ago.
The Venice Carnival in its present form has been celebrated since 1979, when the Italian government and Venetian civic society decided to revive it; as an attempt to re-ignite interest in Venice and its rich traditions.
Currently, the Venice Carnival takes place each year in February. It begins around two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday; also known as Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras in French and Martedi Grasso in Italian.
However, the original Venetian Carnival has a long history that dates back to the 12th C, if not earlier and many of the traditions and highlights of today’s Carnival come straight from the Middle Ages.
The festivities of the Venice Carnival could be considered as a series of historical re-enactments and celebrations; to which a few new events have been added over recent years. This sets it apart makes from other well-known carnivals such as those in Brazil and in Germany.
Origins of the Venice Carnival
The Venetian Carnival has its roots in Christian (predominately Roman Catholic) tradition and that it evolved as a way for people to indulge in life’s pleasures and have fun, in the days before the solemn period of Christian Lent (a time of sorrow and reflection leading up to the Holy Week). Also, in Venice the State and Church had absolute authority and control over the ordinary working people, which was relaxed at certain times. to let them vent their feelings and frustrations.
One of the theories over the origin of the Italian word “Carnevale”, is that it derives from the Latin “carne” meaning meat, and “vale” meaning farewell. It signified the fact that during Lent, people had to fast, avoid temptation and give up life’s luxuries; in order to concentrate on prayer, reflection and self-denial.
However, the Carnival’s history probably runs even deeper. Venice was founded by Romans and others from the mainland, escaping barbarian invasion and built on the remains of crumbling Roman Empire. As such, it has deep roots going all the way back into Roman and even Greek history.
Hence, the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and Greek Dionysian festival before it, are thought to have played a role in Venetians’ desire for a festival; that allows people to be free from social norms. Saturnalia in ancient Rome was a time of complete break from normal social order and hierarchical boundaries, when masked slaves and Roman citizens alike celebrated with music, dancing, symbolic acts and orgies.
The first historical mention of Carnival in Venice dates back to 1092; when it appeared in the charter of Doge Faliero.
However, the event that gave rise to the Carnival’s key traditions, was the victory in 1162 of Doge Vitale Michieli over Ulrich II, the Patriarch of Aquileia. In that year Ulric II captured the city of Grado, a key territory on Venetian mainland which had been the source of much conflict between Ulrich II, the Venetian Doge and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic Barbarossa.
In response to this, the Venetian doge Vitale Michieli immediately sent a fleet to successfully re-capture Grado. Ulrich II, his 12 key vassals and hundreds of his soldiers; were then brought back to Venice as prisoners.
Eventually the Pope intervened, asking for peace and Ulrich’s release. As a condition of his release, Ulrich was forced to pay a yearly tribute to the Venetian Republic of one bull, 12 pigs, and 300 loaves of bread.
In commemoration of this important Venetian victory, a ceremonial slaughtering of the bull, representing Ulrich and the pigs, representing his vassals; occurred in St. Mark’s Square every year around Shrove Tuesday. This gave rise to a cherished Carnival tradition held to this day. The Carnival was designated as an official public holiday starting the day before Lent, by the order of Senate in 1296.
The earliest documentation mentioning the use of masks during Carnival celebrations, dates back to 1268; when the practice of masked men throwing perfume filled blown eggs at ladies during Carnival, was outlawed by Venetian Council decree.
Venice was known to have one of the strictest social hierarchies in Europe and the use of masks during Carnival provided a much-needed peaceful outlet for the hostile feelings of the lower social classes. It allowed them to engage in otherwise forbidden activities, such as mixing with high society, mocking the government and making fun of the aristocracy.
The prominent Venetian citizens, visiting merchants and politicians, and members of nobility also enjoyed wearing masks and costumes, allowing them to engage in frivolous behaviour and socially or religiously inappropriate activities; without fear of being recognised.
As Venice gained prominence as a wealthy cultural and commercial centre, the Carnival with its frivolous and easy-going nature started to attract lots of visitors from all corners of Europe and beyond; turning the city into one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations of that time.
Many of the iconic masks worn during carnival celebrations are derived from a form of street theatre called Comedie dell’Arte (Comedy of Artists). During the 16th to 18th centuries it was performed by travelling theatre companies.
They presented short plays using a well-known set of masks and costumes; playing out amusing scenes around the topics of master-servant relationships, love, marriage, adultery, social class mishaps and other popular themes. The quick wit and the fun content of these plays made them wildly popular.
The characters and masks used in these performances, such as Harlequin, Colombina, Pantaloon and Pulcinella; are well-known to this day and lay at the basis of rich theatrical and literary heritage of many European cultures.
As Venetian Carnival became more popular, it started to attract criminality and those with darker intentions; especially under the cover of night. Men could get dressed as women or as servants of faith; allowing them to enter convents and act inappropriately. Casinos attracted masked gamblers, who sometimes fled creditors. Masked men easily concealing weapons under costume, could cause mayhem on the streets of Venice without being recognised.
This led to a variety of prohibitive decrees, including in 1339 a ban on wearing costumes and masks at night in and the 15th century a ban on entering holy places. This was later followed by bans on concealing dangerous objects and weapons under Carnival costumes.
The Fall and Revival of Venetian Carnival
In 1797, the Venetian Republic was conquered by Napoleon and lost its independence. This led to a long period of political, economic, and cultural decline and to the end of the Carnival.
The last Venetian Carnival took place in 1797, as Napoleon prohibited wearing Venetian Carnival costumes; except during private parties and for the “Ballo della Cavalchina” in Teatro La Fenice.
As a result, the Carnival ceased to exist for nearly 200 years, until in 1967 Venetians started to organise its first costumed private parties; in an attempt to revive the city’s rich cultural heritage.
In 1979 Italian Government officially brought back the Carnival as part of its efforts to revive Venice’s economy and culture and to attract tourism.
This successful initiative, became the ground for a revival in Venetian traditions and crafts; including mask and costume making and theatre.
Today the tradition of annual Venetian Carnival continues with a new theme and program of events announced every year. Venetians and several million tourists enjoy masquerades, lavish parties, music, food and a unique atmosphere of celebration.
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