Satisfyingly the origins of Carnival are as shrouded in mystery as everything else in this period. The first references to the festivities taking place before Easter, can be traced as far back as 1094. But even at this point they seem to have been well established already.
However, it has not always been as popular, well as world-widely renowned as it is today, and it has certainly gone through many transformations over the years. It was even banned under the King of Austria’s reign in 1792, along with the use of masks. Which, as you can imagine, only added to the appeal. In this sad period, the Carnival continued only in the island of Burano and Murano.
At the heart of the festivities, there has always been the idea that people from all walks of life join in the streets. Traditionally this was the time when the class divisions were eliminated by the ingenious and accepted method of just a Mask. A beautifully simple solution to many feuds and passionate love affairs.
“Great thing did the man who first invented the mask “bauta” because this makes people of every role and age in convenient equality and avoids any reverence between sexes”.
The period in which Carnivale is celebrated has rather surprisingly reduced over the years, but possibly become more concentrated in those days. It is difficult to be sure of this however, and I think it depends on how you spend the days and obviously nights, but there is always more than meets the eye.
Visiting during this time…
If it is your first time visiting the City in these days, it is enough to walk with childish abandonment observing and quite physically letting yourself be swept along in the current of people who fill the streets. A plan could be made, but tradition dictates, that unless you are ruthless, it will go array and the best things are often spontaneous anyway.
If in fact you are well acquainted with the city then you will recognize the change in its spirit also, as if it too has adopted a mask. A frivolous nature, changeable and full of dangerous courage and opportunities.
Having established that Carnival is not just one day, and it is more an atmosphere that envelopes all the actions and excuses of people during this time, it is still worth being aware of a few fixed dates.
The first of which is on the 11th February, which is more or less considered the opening of the festival. A procession of floats that travels down the Fondamenta at the edge of the Jewish Ghetto, showing some incredible artisanal skills and expressions of Venetian History. A crowded scene with incredible energy, it will give you a good idea of the days to come.
After this, seeing people roaming the streets in masks becomes commonplace and almost anything can be expected. There is a wonderful sense of liberation, anticipation and somehow it brings to the surface some of the simplest pleasures. The Venetians have always managed to maintain a level of elegance around the whole affair, however, long may it last.
Sunday February 19th – Flight of the Angel in San Marco 12.00
28th February- Martedi Grasso- literally translated as ‘Fat Tuesday’, it signals the last day of celebrating before lent and involves all the closing festivities.
And of course, as with all things Italian there are certain specialties of food that are enjoyed during this time. In particular, you will see a lot of ‘fritelle‘(deep-fried sweet dough), and ‘Galani’. However, as is right, everything is served in nervous abundance, in anticipation of hunger during Lent.
Why a mask and what you can expect today?
To me, I find it most intriguing of all that a mask, designed to give the user a fixed expression and anonymity, in reality, allows us to express the most and show parts of ourselves that we are still unsure of how will be received. But thus ever has been the way, it is also comforting that humans have changed very little in some ways.
However, while the intentions haven’t changed the costumes and ways of celebrating have. Although you may have plans to attend a traditional Venetian Ball, you are equally as likely to stumble across an alligator with a spritz in his hand.
All in all, it is a wonderful meeting of many extremes and contradictions. Quite rightly too, as it is the celebration before the fast. However, it is only really in Venice that it could exist like this. Rich in tradition, but constantly moving forward, laden with lace and closed doors, but built upon the idea of freedom and celebrated on the streets.
It is a tangible sensation when you are here, but almost impossible to express in words, because undoubtedly they would be two contradictory words.
For more information on the full calendar of events, (although we would suggest making your own aswell):