Carnival of Venice

 

Is there anything more quintessentially Italian, or more specifically, Venetian than the Carnival? With a sum of mystery, seduction, fun, debauchery, style, music, art, and theatre, the 17-day long carnival of Venice is without a doubt an unparalleled celebration throughout the whole of Italy. It started in 1094 as a way to keep peasants distracted from revolt against the nobility, and was made official in 1296 as a six-week long celebration. During this extended period, the city transformed into a free-for-all zone featuring all of the characteristics of the modern-day carnival.

The masks – ranging from a simple blackface to carefully elaborated disguises – became the very symbol of the city along with the famous gondola boats. They were the golden key that could open any door in the city, allowing almost everyone to access their forbidden desires- be it a lover or the magnificent splendor of palaces and their excesses. Masks became so important that, in fact, harsher and harsher rules had to be imposed on wearing masks in specific places. For example, they were mandatory for voting new city rules, and for married women attending theatre shows – but forbidden in churches, private roads, and for prostitutes.

With time, masks became more sparse, until in the Eighteenth century when they were only used by nobles (and bandits, as in the famous case of Giacomo Casanova), and by street actors. Public and private staged plays had in fact become a staple of the Venetian carnival: this is where Commedia dell’arte theatre emerged thanks to Carlo Goldoni and other playwrights who introduced the use of stereotype characters to symbolize human vices and virtues – while the private shows tended to be a lot more licentious and obscene.

 

Theatre plays were accompanied by street shows performed by acrobats, dancers, musicians, circus acts and more. Other important street attractions included food stands, often selling exotic dishes imported from eastern countries with whom Venice traded with. All of this was obviously a luxury for privileged people from all over the world, and an opportunity for petty criminals: by the late 1700s the dangers surrounding the celebration had become too grand to manage. Napoleonic rule in 1797 put a stop to the carnival altogether. During this time the carnival only survived in the form of private parties held exclusively for the upper-class.

It took two centuries for the carnival to come back with force. In 1979, the city of Venice decided to take advantage of its fame and heritage, reinstating the event as a new celebration and a spectacular tourist attraction. After several smaller modifications the program, the Carnevale di Venezia now has an established programmed schedule starting with a magnificent parade through the city’s romantic canals and a best costume awards ceremony.

Another integral element of the festival is the Festa delle Marie, a beauty contest between the twelve prettiest Venetian girls. The original event, back in the 1200s, was a celebration of a famous Venetian win over the Istrian pirates who had previously crashed the traditional collective city marriage ceremony, kidnapped the brides-to-be and stolen their jewelry which had been lent to them by the city treasury. The celebrations of this contest grew bawdier and bawdier around the fair maidens parading through the streets, and were eventually cancelled in the year 1300.

Other carnival traditions that have been similarly saved from oblivion, include the Volo dell’angelo (Angel’s flight) – where an important artist or the winning beauty queen descends on Saint Mark’s square from the bell tower carried by a rope and pulley device, symbolizing peace coming over the celebration. This event became so popular and crowded that in recent years the municipality created another similar scenario called Eagle’s flight featuring a prominent female athlete as its protagonist.

The carnival program continues with lots of stage plays, cooking events, huge dance parties throughout the night and more. The only problem? Finding a room during the carnival requires booking well in advance- about three years prior, and the already very expensive city becomes even more unaffordable during the event. But shouldn’t the pleasure of being a part of the greatest party in the world be priceless anyway?

To taste Carnival, emerge yourself in the taste of Italy's thousand colors. Italian Traditions takes you to the best restaurants with the IT5 of the week.