Art Culture > Carnevale: a remnant of the glories of Venice Date posted: February 13, 2014

a remnant of
the glories of Venice

The history of Venice Carnival in Italy and its masks

Adopted, in one form or another, by almost every culture in the world the celebration of Carnival has become a global event, the celebration in Rio de Janeiro is officially the world’s biggest party, but the real home of Carnival has always been Venice.

This year the Carnival of Venice takes place from 15th February – 4th March, for local Venetians it represents the highlight of the year with and explosion of colour, tradition and the arts, for tourists it represents a once in a life time experience. A chance to experience something of ‘La Serenissima’ as she once was.

The first documented evidence of the festival appears during the Dogate of Vitale Falier, (the Doge was the Prime Minister of the Republic of Venice an office that lasted from 692 up to the fall of the Republic in 1797). The annual celebration as we know it is thought to have come from an annual celebration of the victory of Doge Vitali Michieli II over Ulrich II, Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162. Ulrich had been taken prisoner along with 12 vassals who were allied to the feudal Friulians in a rebellion against the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, and was later released on condition that he paid an annual tribute to Venice in the form of one bull, 12 pigs and 12 loaves of bread. The festival traditionally from this point involved the slaughter of a bull (representing Ulrich) and 12 pigs in the Piazza di San Marco on Shrove Thursday to commemorate the victory.

The history of Venice Carnival in Italy and its masks

Rialto Bridge in Venice by Marieschi Michele Giovanni

As Venice expanded and became the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city in the world so too did the Venetian traditions and cultures evolve. The appearance of the iconic Venetian masks dates back to the 13th century where there is a description of masked men throwing eggs at ladies and the practice thus outlawed by the Venetian Laws of 1268. At this time Venice was the centre of commerce and trade in Europe, successfully defending the Adriatic against bands of marauding pirates and holding control over the major trade roots to the East. It was a thriving, bustling metropolis whose streets were filled with people who hailed from the our corners of the world.

This affluence and prosperity was not easily come by and had to be constantly protected. Indeed the key to city’s prosperity lay in its naval innovation and its ability to control the seas. At the peak of its powers La Serenissima  Repubblica di Venezia commanded a navy of 36,000 sailors manning some 3,300 ships. Crossbow practice was compulsory in the city with citizens training in groups. The register of 1338 claims that existed more than 30,000 Venetian men capable of bearing arms. Life inside the city walls was not all fun and games, and with the constant threat of war and the imposition of high taxes to fund city restoration and war efforts, it was a wise political move to allow a certain period of ‘blowing off steam’ and celebration.

The history of Venice Carnival in Italy and its masks

Dancing the minuet at Carnival

Venetian society was very divided with the nobility of course enjoying all the privileges. Although for the most part the dominant religion was orthodox Roman Catholic, the Venetians were known for their relaxed attitude to religion, there was not even one execution for religious heresy during the Counter-Reformation. Venice was a place of very loose morals, and the masked escapades at Carnival were an example of this. Originally the residents of Venice wore the masks from St. Stephen’s Day right up until the Shrove Tuesday or ‘Martedi Grasso’ as it is known in Italy (later known as Mardi Gras), as well as periods in October and November, this saw Venetians masked for a good potion of the year, and as the wearing of masks permitted all kinds of practices that were otherwise at that time taboo, such as gender swapping and free and consequence-free sexual relations even between different classes, it is fare to say that society in Venice was decadent.

Also taking place during the Carnevale period were organised battles or ‘War of the Fists’ which saw rival gangs over particular bridges in the city. This was a sort of organised mayhem and was very violent indeed. The whole period was marked by a splurge of feasting, partying, sex, violence and fun. It was a perfect way to keep a lid on the simmering tensions in the world’s greatest melting pot.

The history of Venice Carnival in Italy and its masks

Masked lovers at the Venice Carnival

There were a number of factors that influenced the decline of the Venetian empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Ottomans and Turks began to encroach on their Mediterranean holdings, involving them in long and costly wars. Columbus discovered the new world and Portugal establishing a new sea route to India thereby ending the Venetian monopoly on the land trade roots to the East. The city was also ravaged by the Black Death in the 1570s, killing some 50,000 people. From this time on the power and influence of the Venetians was on the wane and there are not many apparent influences on our culture today that we can trace back directly to Venice but Carnival is certainly one.

The festival of Carnevale fell into decline in the 17th and 18th centuries and when the city fell under Austrian rule in 1798 in fell away altogether, it was eventually outlawed by Mussolini’s Fascist government in the 1930s but was revived by a small group of artisans in the 1970s. Since then the Carnevale di Venezia has reclaimed its rightful place at the centre of the festival. The traditions have come home to the city in which they belong and Venice shines and one of the world’s most unique parties unique party in a totally unique city.

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