Art Culture > The lascivious side of the Venetian Carnival Date posted: February 15, 2014

The lascivious side
of the Venetian Carnival

Venice Carnival: a history of its lascivious traditions

The Venetian Carnival originates from an ancient pagan festival to celebrate the passing from winter to spring. In an effort to let loose before a time of restraint and pondering in the 40 days before Easter, Christian communities adopted the pagan revelries to serve their faith.

 

Venice Carnival: a history of its lascivious traditions Giacomo Franco Ciarlatani in Piazza San Marco

Giacomo Franco “Ciarlatani in Piazza San Marco” Engraving, 1610

But was it simply a way to say goodbye to the banqueting and gluttonous exaggerations of the Christmas festivities? Carnevale is believed to originate form the latin Carne Vale, literally, goodbye (vale) to meat (carne). However, a school of thought believes that Carnevale had a much more literal meaning. If one takes Carnevale’s etymology to originate from Italian vulgaris, and also Venetian dialect, as opposed to latin, the meaning of the word is subverted into a phrase which largely means “meat fest”.

The moral fabric of the Republic was at times sketchy, at best, and this became increasingly obvious when citizens concealed their identities behind masks. The carnival festivities were often punctuated by murders, theft, loss of virtue and gambling, but especially sex.

Anonymity and disguise heighten one’s sense of infallibility and lower inhibitions. In the carnival period, the strict social rules, hierarchy, class and ethnicity, which characterized the late Medieval and early Renaissance Venetian society, were toppled. Of course, human nature being what it is, the loss of inhibitions manifested themselves in less than contemplative practices most commonly of a sexual nature.

Normally, patrician ladies in Venice were relegated to the house, and when they were allowed to exit, they weren’t independent. Venetian ladies where obliged to teeter around in exceptionally high wedges which often meant they needed to be supported by two men to walk the streets, high heels have always been a way to heighten a woman’s desirability while enhancing her fragility.

But during the carnival, the ladies felt freed by the masks, and they would dress their maids up in the finest costumes and have them escorted to the gatherings in disguise while they would dress up servants, or even men, and meet with their secret lovers.

Venice Carnival: a history of its lascivious traditions Pietro Bertelli Magnifico e Cortigiana

Pietro Bertelli “Magnifico e Cortigiana” Engraving 1642

The servants in turn, would dress up as ladies and they had the chance to experience life at the highest end of Venetian society, and sometimes would find themselves on the receiving end of advances by noble men, unaware perhaps that the lady in question was in fact a servant. Or perhaps, this practice being well known, the nobles would pray on the servants knowing that they would get the chance of a little intimacy.

Venetian men would also benefit from these practices of disguise. They would dress up as women and enter convents where they had their pick of frustrated young ladies segregated to monastical life against their will. Men, hiding behind masks, would also gamble at their hearts desire and escape unrecognized from their creditors.

Venice was at the forefront of ship building, trade, political theory, art and architecture thanks to the strict rules and an unrelenting work ethic on which their society was built. Perhaps, the diversions associated with Carnival, which allowed human nature to be cultivated at its most basic, also served the Venetians to climb to the top of the known world. Perhaps it was them who invented the motto “Work hard and play hard”.

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