Venice Carnival – A Chance to See Venice of the Centuries Past

Carnivals are costumed festivities which bring together the traditions of dress-up, masquerades, colorful fairs, and street performances. Many countries, regions and towns traditionally have held carnivals right before Christian Lent. Translated from Latin, the word Carnival itself actually means “farewell to meat”. While the roots of Christian carnivals go back to the pagan traditions of Roman Empire, the first carnivals associated with Christianity appeared in various European towns around the IX century AD.

The first mention of the Carnival in Venice dates to year 1094 AD. Most likely Venetian Carnival became an annual event after 1162, the year when people gathered in Venice’s St. Mark’s square to celebrate victory in the war with Aquilea by dancing, singing, eating and drinking.

The most famous accessory of the Venetian Carnival is, of course, the mask, so you may be surprised to learn that no masks were actually worn during Carnivals until XIII to XIV century. The creation of an authentic Venetian mask is an ancient and complicated process. The gypsum form is filled with a layer of papier-mache made using a special recipe. The resulting form is set aside to dry, then polished and the holes are cut through for the eyes. A layer of paint is then often used to make the masks look antique. The last stage of mask creation is decorating – a slow and elaborate process with use of acrylic paints, real gold and silver foils, enamel, expensive fabrics, Swarovski crystals, plumes, beads and various other elements limited only by the fantasy and talent of the artist who creates the mask.

Once the masks became a mandatory accessory of the Venetian carnival their popularity in Venice rose and spread far beyond the time of the Carnival. Eventually the masks were worn in Venice for about half a year, from August till the beginning of Lent. However, the wearing of masks presented certain problems in everyday life such as difficulty in enforcing moral and religious norms of the time, difficulty in persecuting criminals, issues with payment of gambling debts made by a masked individual, and many others. To solve these issues the Government introduced a system of complex restrictions on wearing masks, which shortened the times of the year when Venetians could wear masks in public and the types of activities in which masked individuals could participate. Close to the end of the Venetian Republic the masks were allowed only during Carnival.

After Napoleon conquered Venice Carnival was prohibited as part of Napoleon’s efforts to erase the individuality and pride of Venice. In 1979 the Carnival was reinstated and has since become one of the major cultural events in Italy and the World. About 3 million people visit Venetian Carnival each year, which helps sustain not only the Carnival itself but the entire rich historical and cultural heritage of Venice.

The Carnival always begins with the oldest Venetian fest – Festa delle Marie, the origins of which go back to freeing of Venetian maidens stolen by Istrian pirates. The balls and private parties in various palaces along with street performances and costumed revelers packing the streets recreate the authentic frivolous and joyful atmosphere of the Venetian Carnivals of the centuries past. In 1996 the Venetian Carnival got its own anthem written by none other than world-famous couture designer Pierre Cardin. The last day of the Carnival is Martedi Grasso, or “Fat Tuesday”, the day after which the Lent starts in earnest.

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