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Carnevale in Venice: More Than Masks and Debauchery

Despite being associated with indulgence and abandon, Carnevale is a Christian festival. Taking place during the period before Lent, Carnevale is a time of feasting and revelry, a sort of spiritual “filling of the tank” to last one through the abstinence and solemnity of the forty days that lead up to Easter.

As with other important Christian holidays (Christmas being the most notable) that the Church wisely decided to appropriate rather than suppress, the traditions of Carnevale have pagan roots going back to ancient times. Through celebrations such as Roman Saturnalia and Greek Dionisia, a greater civil harmony was fostered through public entertainment featuring the abolishment of social norms and class distinctions. And this is where masks play an important role.

Carnevale’s Masks: A Way to Take the Lid Off a Boiling Social Pot

Besides being beautiful and unusual works of art, the masks of Carnevale historically served a very important civic purpose. They made their appearance as part of the festivities around the 15th Century, when Venice was a place of rigid social hierarchies and strict rules of public order.

Masks facilitated the levelling of class distinctions; at Carnevale, you could dress up as you pleased and cast aside your everyday persona. It wasn’t just that temporary social equality came into being; behavioural norms went out the window at the same time. Peasants could rub shoulders with aristocrats and paupers could seduce royalty.

Besides creating a sense of connection amongst citizens through the disbandment of social disparities, the anonymity granted at the time of Carnevale also permitted Venetians to let off a certain kind of steam. It was permissible to mock authority and the aristocracy during the festival. This release of tension and dissatisfaction through public satire served to take the lid off a boiling social pot. The use of masks at this time in Carnevale’s history was a uniquely Venetian remedy to a dicey situation, and it proved highly effective.

Nowadays, of course, we’re more concerned with the opulence and over-the-top creativity of the masks and Baroque costumes that Venice is so famous for all over the world. This is evidenced by the fact that the competition of La Maschera piú Bella — the most beautiful mask — is still one of the most important events of Carnevale in Venice, adjudicated by an international panel of fashion and costume designers.

Carnevale in Venice: About the Name and the Traditions Behind It

How Carnevale came to be the vividly-defined festival that has permeated the world with its style is a bit of a cloudy tale. Where the name “Carnevale” came from is not even completely clear.

The commonly accepted etymology of Carnevale is that it came from carnem levare or carnelevarium (Latin for “take away meat”) or carne vale (“say farewell to meat”). In any case, it’s pretty clear that we’re being forewarned about the abstinence from eating meat to come during Lent! But before the Church took Carnevale under its liturgical wing, European society was already in the habit of pigging out as winter was winding down because supplies of meat, lard, and butter needed to be consumed before they went rancid or started to rot.

Some scholars argue that carnualia, an ancient festival centered around the consumption of meat, is the source of our Venetian festival’s moniker. A central feature of this feast was a decorated boat followed by a parade of other vessels — a carrus navalis — which explains not only the name Carnevale but also the floats that now form such a central part of pre-Lenten celebrations around the world.

A Brief History of Carnevale’s Rise, Demise, and Resurgence

It is widely believed that Carnevale was launched in Venice in the mid-12th Century, when citizens gathered in San Marco to dance and celebrate the republic’s victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia, but public records dating back to the end of the 11th Century already make mention of a “Carnevale” for the entertainment of the Venetian populace. The festival was officially recognized as a public holiday in 1296.

As previously mentioned, masks became a part of Carnevale tradition during the 15th Century, ushering in the tradition of breaking down social barriers that became so key to the celebrations. By this time, festivities were happening all over Christendom in the run-up to Lent.

By the 17th Century, the reputation of Venice’s Carnevale as a prestigious Baroque festival had spread far and wide. By the 18th Century, Carnevale was drawing aristocrats from all across Europe, who came to participate in the lavish parties and decadent celebrations. Ironically, at the end of that same century, at the festival’s zenith, Carnevale was abolished in the wake of Napoleon’s conquest of Venice (driven by the fear that the anonymity granted by masks would make insurrection too easy).

In 1979, the government of Italy brought back Carnevale in an effort to stimulate tourism and give a shot in the arm to Venice’s economy. Judging by the three million visitors who flock to Venice every year to be part of the spectacle, it worked like a charm.

Experience the wonders of The City of Canals on DriverInRome’s 9-Day Tour Package to Rome, Tuscany, and Venice. Please contact us to learn more.

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