The Carnival of Venice

The celebration of the carnival derives from very ancient festivities, such as the Greek Dionysian and Roman saturnalians, when for a limited period of time social obligations and hierarchies disappeared.
From a religious and historical point of view the carnival represented a moment of symbolic renewal of the social order through the chaos during a limited period.

Like the Roman Empire, also the Serenissima in Venice needed to give vent to its population: with the use of masks and costumes there was a levelling of social classes and sexes, where anyone could be something different from himself.
Anonymity made the people free, giving them an outlet from tensions and bad moods.
Since it is linked to the celebration of Easter, Carnival does not have a fixed date, although the main part of the festivities is concentrated between Fat Thursday and the following Mardi Gras which marks its end, with the beginning of Lent.

The Carnival in Venice has very ancient origins, with its first testimony in a document of the Doge Vitale Falier in 1094, where it talks about public entertainment: the Senate of the Republic will officially declare that the Carnival of Venice is a public holiday in an edict of 1296.
With the use of fundamental disguises, a new trade was born in Venice, the trade of masks and costumes, since 1271. The freedom of anonymity during the Carnival, however, gave the possibility of committing crimes of different nature, so much so that in 1339 a decree forbade to circulate masked during the night.

venice by night
in 1339 a decree forbade to circulate masked during the night

The most common disguise in ancient Carnival was the Bauta: a white mask called larva under a tricorn and completely wrapped in a tabarro, a dark cloak. The mask was worn by both men and women, and the particular shape of the larva made it possible to eat and drink without ever having to take it off.

During the Carnival, everyday life took second place, while the people and the nobles occupied their time in dances in the luxurious residences of the Venetian palaces, festivities and shows that were staged throughout the city, but especially in the major “campi” (fields).
In the 18th century the Carnival of Venice reached its maximum splendour, being internationally recognized and attracting many visitors into the beautiful Venetian palaces.

Palazzo Bernardo
Ca' Dario
Palazzo Foscarini Giovanelli

After the fall of the Serenissima, in 1797, during the French occupation of Napoleon, it was definitively forbidden to circulate masked, because of fear of rebellion and unrest by the population: thus began the decline of the playful and irreverent spirit that animated the Carnival over the centuries, which saw the end of the initiative for almost two centuries, until 1979, when it rose spontaneously among the population.
With the passing of the years, however, the Venice Carnival has increasingly become a tourist attraction, losing the spontaneity that a popular festival should have: only a few small realities organized by the Venetians and aimed at local people remain.

If you are in Venice during the Carnival, don’t just participate in the events organized by the City Council, but try to get out of the more touristy streets, so you can see what remains of the real Venice and maybe, if you are lucky, you will run into a real folk festival.