The Venice Carnival is the m
ost well- known and one of the oldest festivals annually celebrated in the world. The word ‘carnival’ or ‘carnivale’ in Italian
is believed to be derived from the Latin words ‘carnem levare’ or ‘carnelevarium’ which mean to take away or remove meat! Another meaning for the world carnival could be also from the Latin words ‘carne vale’ or ‘farewell to meat’. That phrase perfectly describes a time devoted to preparing for Lent, the Christian tradition of the forty days period before Easter, during which abstinence from meat is practiced. 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 or Martedi Grasso in Italian).
The main feature of the Venice Carnival has always been the stunning masquerade costumes and masks. Masks used to have symbolic and functional features. During the Venice Carnivals in the past the streets of Venice were full of the people wearing masks which allowed them to protect their identity and remove any social differences. Besides, masks allowed a wearer hide his identity during licentious and dissolute activities. The earliest documented mention of people wearing masks dates back to 1268 when masked people were banned from playing various games by law.
When the Great Council prohibited to throw scented eggs filled with rose water towards strolling ladies, Mattaccino masks became the first law regulated masks. They were worn by young nobles dressed as clowns. This ‘game’ turned out to be so popular that the government even made a decision to install nets to protect those ladies from soiling of their expensive garments. In 1339 another law prohibited masked people from visiting nun's convents, painting their faces and wearing false beards and wigs (in order to protect people from robbers and murders who regularly wore them). The lack of any other documented sources about masking suggests that people did not wear them frequently before the 13th century.
The First Carnival
However, it is believed that the tradition to celebrate the Venice Carnival may have
started in 1162 with the celebration of the victory over Ulrich II of Treven, the Patriarch of Aquileia (an ancient Roman city in Italy). Urich II was taken prisoner together with his 12 vassals and eventually released on one specific condition. Every year on Holy Thursday the Patriarch was obliged to pay a tribute to Venice that included a bull and 12 pigs which than were slaughtered in the Piazza San Marco in front of Venetians to commemorate the victory. On that day the street celebrations, games, people dancing and bonfires would take over the streets of the city.
By the 18th
century the Venice Carnival became one of the most popular tourist attractions and attracted people from all over the Europe. The festivities continued for 6 months of the year. During that time, Venice was known as a centre of gambling, the ‘Las Vegas’ of its day. It was the place where music and dancing continued almost non-stop. This period is also associated with the Venetian painter Francesco Guardi
and with the famous Venetian adventurer and ‘womanizer’ Giacomo Casanova.
Unfortunately, the Venice Carnival fell into decline after when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio and Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia in 1797. On January 18, 1798 the Austrians took control of the whole city and the Carnival almost disappeared for nearly two centuries. In the 1930s Venice Carnival was banned by the fascist government and was finally revived only in the 1980s with its distinctive traditions and celebrations making Venice as one the best Carnival destinations for tourists from all over the world.