Venice Carnival

A fascinating journey between history, traditions and recent events

The Venice Carnival history and its origins is a subject that fascinates many people: to know when and how the extraordinary Carnival in Venice started, the evolution in the use of masks and period costumes, curious anecdotes or historical events that have marked the way... it is a fascinating journey in the ancient celebration of the Venetian Carnival, between history and traditions.

Considered one of the most important events in Veneto, Carnival has found in Venice the perfect location to fully express its spirit dedicated to playing and breaking down social barriers.

Venice attracts tourists from all over the world and every year the Carnival in Venice transforms the city into a cocktail of parties and fun with its distinctive appointments of entertainment, gastronomy and music.

The Venice Carnival origins are to be found in two ancient traditions: the Latin Saturnalia and the Greek Dionysian cults - major religious festivals involving the use of masks and symbolic representations. The Venice Carnival history and meanings take their cue from these traditions, recasting them for their own purposes: in the Saturnalia of ancient Rome the social order was overturned and slaves and free citizens poured into the city to celebrate with music and wild dancing; in the Greek Dionysia processions and plays were intended to unite the human being with nature in a superior harmony, free of social conventions established by man.

The Venice Carnival
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Venice has reinterpreted the ancient Greek and Roman festivals to meet the needs of the Venetian Republic, which promoted the Carnival to give to the people, especially the lower classes, a time for fun and parties. The Venetian Carnival masks guaranteed total anonymity, a sort of levelling of the social divisions that sometimes allowed citizens to even make a public mockery of authority and aristocracy. These generous licenses represented an outlet for tensions and ill-feeling that was created in society because of the strict limits imposed by morality and the public order of the Republic of Venice.

The origin of the word Carnival is traced to a document of the Doge Vitale Falier of 1094, where it was used for the first time talking about public amusements.

The Carnival in Venice history as an official public holiday, however, began only in 1296, when a decree of the Senate declared a public holiday the day before the beginning of Lent.

The Venice Carnival characters included jugglers, acrobats, musicians and dancers. They organized all kinds of events, including performances and exhibitions absorbing so much attention that Venetians business and production activities became less important. For many centuries, the celebration of the Carnival in Venice would last six weeks, from December 26 to Ash Wednesday, bringing joy and fun to the main areas of the city such as the Riva degli Schiavoni and St Mark’s Square. Sometimes the celebration of the Carnival in Venice, between parties, pranks and shows began during the first days of October.

Soon a close relationship started between theatre and carnival: in fact, as well as large outdoor parties, small performances and shows of various kinds were organized in private homes, theatres and cafes in Venice, which always transgressed into wild parties. In the elegant Venetian palaces lavish masked balls marked the beginning of a long and fascinating tradition of masked parties in Venice.

Well known and renowned throughout Europe, the Venice Carnival in the eighteenth century became a real institution. Visited each year by thousands of visitors, the prestigious festival of Carnival in Venice at that time reached its zenith and international recognition: the effervescent and transgressive atmosphere, the comedy, masks, spectacular shows and the public gambling house made Venice 'The magnet of Europe'.

Soon, however, the intent of the Carnival in Venice, the origins and meaning of the festival, an opportunity to vent tensions and discontentment, caused the opposite effect: the ability to completely hide one’s identity in traditional Venice Carnival costumes and fancy masks increasingly became the perfect place for theft and harassment of various kinds.

These serious excesses forced the Venetian Republic to issue a series of decrees to limit abuses and fraudulent use of masks and costumes in Venice, measures that gradually went to undermine the very essence of the Carnival in Venice and the origins of freedom and equality.

After sunset, under the cover of darkness, the Venetian Carnival transgressed into something more sinister, mysterious attackers could freely commit crimes of various kinds with the certainty of impunity thanks to the anonymity guaranteed by the mask. Since 1339 a ban was decreed on Venice Carnival masks and costumes at night. Another abuse was the opportunity to wear women’s clothes or religious costumes to break into churches, monasteries or convents and commit indecent acts and libertines. During Venice Carnival in the 15th century therefore it was forbidden to enter holy places wearing masks. The threat to the safety of the inhabitants of Venice was due to the possibility for criminals to hide weapons and other dangerous objects under Venice Carnival costumes. Numerous official documents containing the prohibition to carry objects of a dangerous nature were therefore issued. Venice Carnival 18th century also forbade travelling to the casinos with masks and carnival costumes, due to the numerous incidents in which unknown gamblers were able to escape their creditors.

With the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, a permanent ban of Venice Carnival costumes arrived, with the exception of private parties in Venetian palaces and the Ballo della Cavalchina at the La Fenice Theatre: the Venice Carnival history was hard hit and a long period of decline ensued that led to the gradual shutdown of all parties connected to it. The last Carnival in Venice is dated at 1797. The fall of the Republic at the hands of Napoleon marked the end of the long independence of Venice and the abolition of the many traditions of the Venetian Carnival for about two centuries.

Only from 1967 the first parties were reorganized with parades of masks and costumes, bringing back to life traditions and the Venice Carnival history. In 1979 a program to engage the inhabitants of Venice in the Venetian festivities was drafted for the first time to return the Carnival of Venice to its origins... The new formula has become a success story that has been going on for thirty years.

By Insidecom Editorial Staff