They seem to be made for each other, the Carnival and Venice. Whether you find yourself in a crowded Piazza San Marco or in the labyrinth of the narrow alleys, strolling along the canals, sitting in a gondola gliding under the bridges or perhaps on Canal Grande by Ponte Rialto; Venice is the stage. Wherever you are in this marvellous city on water you are always right in the middle of it, onstage playing a part of it all, and you come to see that the Carnival complements Venice and Venice gives life to the Carnival.
“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go!”
Venice is indeed like Truman Capote says in the quote, and it is all the more true during the Carnival days. It might not be as exclusive as it once was with the endless streams of tourists literally flooding the city, but it still is a wonderful display to be enjoyed for what it is; in a full Carnival costume, just behind a mask or simply as a spectator in one of the most spectacular places in the world.
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The origins of the carnival date from 12th century when the Venetians celebrated a victory of the Serenissima Repubblica against Ulrico, the Patriarch of Aquileia. Later the use of masks were allowed between the festival of Santo Stefano (Dec.26) and Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday), on the day the present day carnivals end. Masks were also allowed from October until Christmas, making it possible to be “incognito” a large part of the year. For centuries many Venetians preferred to conduct businesses behind masks, possibly also in response to one of the most rigid class hierarchies in European history.
The Carnival became increasingly famous during the seventeenth and the eighteenth century but under the rule of the King of Austria, the festival was outlawed entirely in 1797 and the use of masks became strictly forbidden. It reappeared in the nineteenth century, but only for short periods and above all for private feasts. The Carnival as we know it today was revived in 1979.
The word Carnevale is possibly derived from the Latin “carnem + levare” meaning “to avoid meat”, related to the Christian festival of Lent, a period of forty days of preparation for Easter Sunday and one of the major liturgical seasons of the Catholic Church. This is penitential season marked by prayer, fasting and abstinence. The Carnival of Venice ends on Martedí Grasso (Mardi Gras) or Fat Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent. The Carnival dates and period vary according to Easter each year. In 2014 it starts on Saturday the 15th of February and ends on Tuesday the 4th of March.
There are several distinct styles of masks, most of them easily recognisable.
The meaning of the word “bauta” is uncertain but it could possibly come from the Veneto-Italian “bau-bao” for bogeyman, as in: “Se non stai bravo viene il babau e ti porta via”, meaning “if you do not behave, the babau will come and take you away”. Scary!
The bizarre “Plague Doctor” (Medico della peste) with it’s long and usually white beak that actually was made to prevent spreading of disease. The bearer usually wears a black hat and a long black cloak. The mask is often white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eyeholes covered with crystal discs, creating a bespectacled effect. Its use as a carnival mask is entirely a modern convention, and today these masks are often much more decorative.
The Columbina is a half-mask that began as a woman’s “bauta” mask. The mask is named after a character in the Commedia dell’arte, Columbina, who was a maidservent and soubrette who was an adored part of the Italian theatre for generations. The Columbina mask is a modern creation. There are no historic paintings depicting its use on the stage or in social life.
The volto (Italian for face) or larva (meaning ghost in Latin) is the iconic modern Venetian mask: it is often stark white though also frequently gilded and decorated. The mask covers the entire face including the whole of the chin and extending back to just before the ears and upwards to the top of the forehead. It depicts simple facial features like the nose and lips.
There are other mask styles like the Moretta, Pantalone and Zanni. The latter two are Venetian classics and they both have rather bizarre features like bulging eyebrows and long beak-like noses. Should you spot one of these then do take a picture and let us know.
Enjoy the Carnival!