Venice Carnival history: Once upon a time…

We all know what the Venetian Carnival is. However, since traditional Carnival masks have quite an ancient look, we can imagine that the event dates back to past centuries. But when did it all start, really?

The first document about the Venice Carnival dates back to 1039, when the word “carnevale” was found written for the first time. Later, in 1268, a law about the city governors trying to stop the “moral decline” in Venice was drafted. In this document, masked people were specifically ordered not to play the “egg game”, and therefore not to throw perfumed eggs!!. During the 14th century, many other laws were enacted with the purpose of restricting some carnival games, customs and traditions. We have to say that what was considered “moral decline” in those days could probably make us smile nowadays. Just to give you the idea, imagine a loud crowd of masqueraders going around the city at night, and maybe entering cloisters dressed like women! What is not very well-known is that costumes and masks were not used only for fat tuesday (mardi gras) or masquerade balls, but were very common in Venice throughout the year. In fact, they were worn in theatres, during parties, at the casino, while flirting and performing activities during which concealing one’s identity was appropriate. They were used and misused to such an extent that in 1608 a law made it mandatory to wear them only during Carnival days. This is how it all began: from this moment on, masks became somehow typical of Carnival season, but not of Venetian everyday life.

Venice Carnival history : The glorious 18th century

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, wearing masks was banned gradually during an increasing number of events, and allowed only during carnival period. Following centuries of prohibition, masks were re-introduced into Venetian life after World War II. But it is only in 1979 that the Venice Carnival regained its traditional splendour. Despite the various attempts to restrict the wearing of masks , the Venice Carnival became “world” renowned during the 18th century, a period during which many traditions, famous people (like Giacomo Casanova) and masks from the Commedia dell’arte emerged. At that time, there were a lot of botteghe,  workshops where masks and costumes were handmade by artisans and tailors. The most famous masks (the Bauta above all and medico della peste) are still the most popular nowadays: during the 18th century, they were worn by both men and women at parties, balls, fun events. Today, these iconic items symbolise the Venice Carnival.

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Venetian Masks: the most popular 

Bauta is a mask representing a man’s face with a large nose and prominent “chin”: it was worn with a tricorn by both men and women. Its prominent “chin” allowed people to eat and drink with the mask on, hence its popularity. The other famous mask, the plague doctor was invented to protect doctors during peste epidemie. Venice Carnival also made famous typical costumes inspired from the Commedia dell’arte, like graceful Colombina or grumpy Pantalone, along with small masks. A large part of the masks we can admire during the Venice Carnival nowadays come from the wide range of historical Venetian clothing items, combined with masks (like Bauta) embellished with fashion jewellery and feathers. Themes are also very popular: a couple or group of people will wear costumes and masks with matching colours and styles. The results can be amazing… Come see for yourself!

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Venice Carnival: Ancient traditions

The Carnival in Venice is not a random series of dressing up days: they are special days during which traditional events take place, with their rituals, ceremonies and typical dishes.

The flight of the turkey (or the angel), for example, is a century-old tradition that has been performed in many different ways since its origin. In 1500, an acrobat dressed as a turkey would climb up to San Marco bell tower top walking on a rope: the citizens were so impressed that they asked for this show to take place during each following Carnival in st mark s square. So the tradition was born! The flight of the turkey was performed for more than 200 years, until one year the performer came to a sticky end.  Afterwards, the “turkey” was replaced by a wooden box until 2001. That year local administration decided to use a slightly modified version of the original show by using a real performer dressed like an angel looking like a famous Italian or international stars.

Festa delle Marie is an ancient tradition dating back more than a thousand years ago. A group of poor, yet beautiful Venetian girls who were celebrating their wedding during Carnival days would parade through calli and canals: the girls were given precious clothes and jewels by rich aristocratic Venetian people in order to have a wonderful wedding. At the end of the 13th century, the city governor found this tradition too frivolous and decided to replace the girls with wooden female figures. As you can imagine, the citizens quickly expressed their disappointment by throwing vegetables at the “wooden Maries”. Still today, “wooden Mary” is how Venetian people refer to an unattractive and insensitive woman.

Frittelle and galani: Among Venetian sweets, frittelle and galani are those which best represent Carnival time. Frittelle are sweet balls of soft fried dough with raisins and pine nuts (they can also be filled with custard), while galani (also called chiacchiere or crostoli) are flat puff pastries, fried and covered with icing sugar.

Venice Carnival: traditional food

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