Venice Carnival!

23 Mar

History of Venice Carnival

The word carnival comes from the Latin for “Farewell, meat!”. As Lent (which begins on Ash Wednesday) obliged people to fast, during the period up to Ash Wednesday all meat, butter and eggs had to be used up. This religious formality became the excuse for a party that echoed pagan festivities. In late Rome Saturnalia and Lupercalia were moments when licentiousness and wantonry were celebrated – a deliberate upturning of the usual social order. Christianity licensed a comparable period of celebration from Twelfth Night until the midnight of Shrove Tuesday. Popes Clement IX and XI and Benedict XIII were among those who tried hardest to bring Carnival back within proper religious limits, but they didn’t have much influence over Venice.

 The history of the Venice Carnival tradition began after 1162. The Republic defeated Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia in that year, and began a tradition of slaughtering a bull and 12 pigs in the Piazza San Marco around Shrove Tuesday to commemorate the victory. This celebration gradually grew and 1268 dates the first document mentioning the use of masks.

Carnival Masks

Masks made the Venetian Carnival unique. If you cannot identify the wearer of the mask, you do not know his social status. In this way, Venice temporarily overturned her social order. Some of the masks depicted Commedia dell’Arte characters. Others were more sinister. The white-beaked mask so famous from photographs is that of the plague-doctor; the beak echoes a doctor’s long breathing apparatus that held a sponge doused in vinegar, thought to hold the plague at bay. The Doges were frequently exercised by the dangers masks allowed, and passed laws limiting their use to within the carnival period; if you wore a mask at any other time of year, penalties were severe.

 Masks are a big cottage industry in today’s Venice, and sold all year round. If you are looking for a mask for carnival, one of the better mask shops is Carta Alta – their website not only gives you a catalogue of masks for sale, but flash movies showing how the masks are made.

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