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The Carnival of Venice


The historians of Venetian life trace the origins of the famous Venetian Carnival back to the "festivities" where the victorious "Serenissima Repubblica" (Thee most Serene Republic) celebrated its triumphs over vanquished and defeated peoples.

As the riches and the fortunes produced by commerce of the Serenissima Repubblica grew, so also grew the need of luxury, worthy privileges of the rich desiring every possible type of diversion. Gradually the warlike festivities gradually gave way to more licentious merrymaking, with feasts and amusements, evocative of the tradition of the Bacchanals in ancient Rome. From this the real spirit of Carnival was born, reaching its maximum peak in Venice during the decline of the Republic in the 18th century.


Above all, Carnival was born as a religious act. The long winter nights intensified the need of communicating with the gods of the underworld, and exploded in an emotional and spectacular response. Then, the carnival-like hubbub became spectacle, colourful and popular with all classes, noise and merrymaking to bring back to life the sleeping Sun god from winter catalepsy. The similarity between Latin and Italian Carnival with the ancient Roman Saturnalia has often been noted.

In fact, Carnival - a burlesque personage -who is publicly put to death after a brief period of dissipation and pleasures is none other than the descendant of the ancient king of the Saturnali.

From its remote beginning, Carnival was not intended to be enjoyment unto itself, but rather a deliverance from tomorrow's privations and mortification. The Christianity tried to cancel the traces of the pagan rituals.

The medieval ceremonies, of Latin origin, can be reassumed in the festivities of December and January. The liberties of December were auspicious of a carefree period, and were elected a "Pope of the Fools" and a "Bishop of the Innocents", here and there in Europe.

The pagan theme was taken up again in the January rituals, in particular the masquerade of the beastlike men and the chanting retinue which passed through the streets, singing and bawling.

But is during the Renaissance that Carnival assumed a magical appearance, with the pomp and luxury of court life and the prosperity of the leading families. Carnival is the "appointed place" to the exaltation of a bold nature, freed from conformity.

"Maschera" (mask) is derived from " Masca", originally meaning death, and then a type of witch or ignoble spirit. The masks represented the underworld creatures who at the beginning of the annual cycle reappear on earth to fecundate it with their powers in the eternal battle of Good against Evil. The use of masks passed from Greece to Rome with little variations. In the classical age the use of masks was limited to the theatre or used for ceremonial reasons. In Middle Ages its use increased among the people. The religious authorities often intervened to limit the use of masks as they were source of intrigues, scandals and violence,

Under the heading of masks we should also include the "fixed types". These were already to be found in the ancient Atellane and can probably be dated back to the mimes of Magna Grecia and Sicily. Other masks became common when, in the 16th century, the theatre took on a new life, especially with the Commedia dell'Arte.

As the Commedia dell'Arte declined, the mask was used for character roles, acquiring a regional accent.

The use of the mask in Venice, in fact, dates back to the conquest of the Levant; as can be seen from a law of 1268 which prohibits the masquerades to play with eggs. In the 16th century, the nobles and commoners usually wore masks. The mask, in fact, took an important role in Venice, not only at Carnival time, that was not to be found elsewhere. The Venetians wore throughout Carnival, then until the celebration of San Marco's day, throughout the Assumption fair, during October and November without taking into account the exceptional occasions.

The Serenissima Government had to intervene often, issuing special laws regulating their use.

1338 - Masks could not be worn after dark in the street.

l458 - Men were not allowed to dress as women or fools.

1585 - No weapons allowed.

1606 - Masked persons could not enter a church.

1703 - Banned for the whole year from gaming houses.

1718 - Banned during Lent.

During the Renaissance the mask became almost a compulsory accessory among the nobles in France and England. The 18th century was the period of the mask's triumph. It was the period of the " Bauta " (domino), which was worn by the lady on the street, by the servant on an errand, by the gentleman on his way to fight a duel and by the highwayman who robs the passing coach. The fashion suddenly came to a halt at the turn of the century (18th-19th), its use being reserved almost exclusively for masked balls and Carnival.

Masks were abolished during the first ten years of Austrian domination, with the exception for the "Cavalchina" at La Fenice; they were again allowed by the Italian government, and also during the second Austrian domination, but only at Carnival time.


The first official evidence of the Venice Carnival dates back to 1094, when Doge Faliero authorised the festivities. But the event which characterised the Carnival took place in 1162, when Ulrico, patriarch of Aquileja, with the help of several feudatory Friulans attacked Enrico Dandolo, forcing him to flee to Venice.

Doge Vitale Michiel II intervened, defeated Ulrico, and imprisoned him together with twelve canons. In exchange for his freedom, Ulrico undertook to annually bestow on the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday, twelve loaves of bread, twelve pigs and one bull. The animal sacrifice thus became the opening rite of Carnival.

Bach year were placed in the large Hall of Piovego (Palazzo Ducale) scenes representing the Friuli landscape, complete with little wooden castles depicting the defeat. The Serenissima Court of Justice, after a farcical and rapid trial, gravely announced the death penalty, ordering the soldiers to carry out the sentence immediately in the Piazza. A piece of meat was sent to each senator and the bread was distributed among the prisoners, in 1420 the patriarchal rule of Aquileja being ended, the traditional gift was donated and paid for the Treasury, and the tradition was maintained for another one hundred years. In order to give a certain dignity to the festivities, the butchering of the animals was abolished and the inauguration of the Carnival was entrusted to the Doge, in the Piovego Hall.

A decree, dating 9th February 1459, authorised the Officers of the "Razon Vecchie" to organise, thanks to an annual sum allocated, the Carnival Festivities. There were fireworks and acrobatic displays in the centre of Piazzetta San Marco. "The Strength of Hercules" was a competition between two opposing teams: the Castellani and the Nicolotti. There were gymnastic feasts such as the human pyramid, the title changing according to the performance: i.e.'The Colossus of Rhodes", "Mohammed's Coffin", "Beautiful Venice" etc.

The Moresca (an Arab military dance) was famous, and its end, a daredevil tightrope walker (almost always an Arsenal worker) leapt, descending on a rope, from the steeple of San Marco to the Doge in the pergola of the Palazzo Ducale, presenting him with a posy of flowers and some sonnets. The so called "Bull Hunts" were also typical of Carnival. They took place in the afternoons (excluding Friday) on the first days of Carnival until the last Sunday. The animals were castrated, and the bulls and dogs were specially trained for these fights. An "Arena" was prepared in the colonnade. After the bull had been wounded by the dog's fangs, two or three butchers enter-red (including a masked cavalier) to separate the dog from the bull and to perform acts of bravery.

When the horns were sawn off, the beast was felled by a sabre thrust. The "Bull Hunts" were prohibited during the first Austrian domination, after part of the arena collapsed. Others were organised in the 19th century on the island of Murano.

When Venice became part of the Regno d'ltalia, the "Bull Hunts" were definitively banned. The Venice Carnival reached its maximum splendour in 1700.

Leave the piazzas to live a little in the luxury of the "caffé”, in the theatres and in the palatial houses. Piazza San Marco always will be the centre of attraction. New masks and important performances bloomed, and the whole of Europe looked towards Venice as the performances took place in the homes of the nobles or in the convent, on mobile stages. In 1792 "La Fenice" was born, soon to become famous for its masked ball: "La Cavalchina", a must for nobility and, in time, centre of the Venice Carnival. Then there were the public balls and minor festivities almost everywhere, with all the classes participating.

The lower classes organised, (in their houses or in the streets, especially in the Castello area), the popular dances of the time one of these being the "Furlana" probably of Friulan origin.

In the small hours, the merrymaking continued in the club houses and in the casinos, small houses and rooms used for gaming and amorous intrigues. The most celebrated club-houses, opened in 1638, was at San Moisé, in the antique Palazzo Dandolo. Here a large number" of habitués lost sizeable fortunes, indulged in free love and conjugal infidelity. Because of this it was closed down in 1774 by order of the Major Council of the Serenissima.

As the power of the Republic declined, public and private festivities lost their splendour to be discreetly converted into a bourgeois city ritual consecrated by the "Cavalchina", at La Fenice Theatre. The Republic fell in 1797, after Napoleon came the Austrians, and the Carnival ended. When Venice became part of the Regno d'ltalia in 1866, Carnival was celebrated once again, this time as a patriotic occasion. A "Carnival Association" was born and entrusted with the organisation of the festivities: fire of the ephemeral festivity that was destined to die quickly.

In 1899, a new attempt: the work of Mariano Fortuny, an artist, and Prince Fritz Hohenloe.

Wearing itself out during the following year, the Carnival, in 1900, gradually lost vitality and went through good and bad periods, during which even the famous ritual of the "Cavalchina" was extinguished at La Fenice. It was only in 1980 on the initiative of the "Biennale di Venezia" that it was brought back to life in a grand way.