Marking one of the most exciting times in the city’s calendar, the Venice Carnival is world-famous for its use of masks. The atmosphere generated at carnival time is second-to-none and it is unsurprising that the city gets particularly busy at this time. Held each year, the Venice Carnival begins two Saturdays prior to Ash Wednesday and finishes on Shrove Tuesday. It is not known when the carnival began, but its existence has been found on official Venetian documents as far back as 1296, so it can most certainly be described as a long-established tradition. Back in 1094, the then Doge of Venice allowed for some celebrating prior to Lent, but it took several centuries for the carnival to evolve into something that we might recognise today.
Carnival Over the Centuries
Over time, the Venice Carnival became more and more elaborate. Tumblers, jugglers and acrobats all joined in the mix and little tributes were staged, often celebrating the endeavours of the heroes of Venetian history, such as Marco Polo. Carnival soon became a time when the social differences of Venetian society were broken down. The wearing of masks became popular and this was regarded as something that brought all people together on the same level, even if this was a temporary phenomenon. The masks worn by ordinary and high-born Venetians alike became symbolic of equality – largely due to the fact that people could hide behind them. Soon wearing masks and costumes together meant that Venetians could completely alter their identities and overcome barriers of social class, along with those of gender and even religion, to some extent, too. With a mask and a costume, anyone could take on the identity they preferred. Therefore, it became the custom to interact with people by addressing their mask – and not their person – with the greeting, “Hello, madame mask.”
By the later Middle Ages, clubs began to organise balls during the carnival season and other events – including dog-baiting and bull fighting – were held. In the mid-Eighteenth century, the carnival was so popular with Venetians that it went on for almost two months. This came to an abrupt end in 1797 when Bonaparte took over Northern Italy and the carnival went into something of a decline. In the early twentieth century Benito Mussolini outlawed the use of masks and the carnival was no longer held at all. However, the appetite for a good time among Venetians remained undimmed and it was revived in 1979, soon becoming one of the world’s greatest festivities.
Today, anyone can join in during the carnival. All that you need to take part is a mask. There are many different types of mask that you can opt for, including historic ones such as the Moretta, an oval mask of black velvet; the Larva, which is typically worn with a tricorn hat and a cape; and the Bauta, which is more veil-like than being an actual mask. In addition, there are many mask styles which hark back to the seventeenth century carnivals which were often inspired by the famous characters of Commedia dell’Arte, such as Columbine, Zanni, Harlequin and Pantalone. Many public events are held at carnival time. These include the arrival of the twelve beauties, or Festa delle Marie, which uses fencing and many period costumes of Venice. There are also various award ceremonies for the best costumes and masks which the public can attend.
Despite the varied programme that visitors to the city can enjoy, one of the best things about the Venice Carnival is the private events that are also put on. These run throughout the carnival period, almost every day, and are ticketed events that it is advisable to book in advance for. Popular private events include ‘Minuetto’, a refined dinner and dance, and the Tiepolo Ball which is widely-regarded as one of the finest balls held in Venice. Staged in the Hall of the Ridotto, Carnival Dream is a stunning theatrical experience which is full of Venetian glamour and performed in English. Many of these events are held in the carnival season each and every year.