The Carnival of Venice

Throughout the whole month, Venice, the most enchanting Italian city, will once again turn into the colorful capital of life and joy. Every year more than 3 million visitors come to the City of Canals to take part in the world’s most famous masquerade. The culmination of the Venice carnival will fall on the February, 28th, however, multiple smaller events will start already from February, 11th. The Piazza San Marco is the epicenter of the carnival. This is where the Maschera più bella contest for the best masked costume takes place, the event that you cannot miss. The Venice Carnival is a unique chance to truly go back in time and dive into the Italian culture being surrounded by the stunning reneissance architecture.

The tradition of Venice carnival began already in the 1094 century, when people spontaneously gathered at the San Marco Square to celebrate the beginning of the Lent. Two hundred years later, in 1269, the Senate officially designated this day as a holiday called Fat Tuesday.  The tradition was maintained throughout the next centuries, culminating during the Baroque period. In this time, the carnival became a crucial social event cultivated to maintain Venice’s status as the world’s capital of culture and wealth.

The tradition was abruptly interrupted in 1798 due to the fall of the Venetian Serenissima Republic. After Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, the city became part of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia under the Austrian role. During this time wearing masks became strictly forbidden as a symbol of secrecy, promiscuity and lasciviousness. The situation did not improve over time. Despite the attempts to bring back the joyful tradition, the fascist government again outlawed the Carnival in the 1930s. The masquerade fully returned to Italy first in 1979 and is being cultivated ever since.

One cannot help noticing that masks play a central role in the Carnival celebration. Venetian masks have been worn in Venice since antiquity. Traditionally, they were made from paper-mache and richly decorated with fur, jewellery, and feathers. The use of masks was first documented in 13th century, when the ban on masked men to throw eggshells full of water at women on the street was introduced.

Photograph by Frank Kovalchek, distributed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The masks worn during the Carnival can be divided into two groups: Commedia dell’ Arte masks and Carnival masks. The first group derives from improvisational theatre which was popular in Italy in 17th century. Masks of this kind depicted often a character from a play, most famous being “Arlecchino” or “Columbina”. Each mask had its characteristic features. For example, the first actress playing Columbina decided that her face is too beautiful to be completely covered. For that reason, her mask is a half-mask usually decorated with gold and silver. The Arlecchino mask, on the other hand, has a wide nose and a characteristic bump on the forehead.

The most popular types of carnival masks include Bauta, Volto and Moretta. Bauta is always white and almost fully covers the face. Its name comes from the German word “behüten“, which means “to protect”. In 16th century Venice women not wearing Bauta were not allowed to go to theatre. Volto masks were much gloomier and gave a person a ghost-like appearance. They were traditionally worn by men along with a black cloak. Moretta is originally a French mask designed for women. The original purpose of moretta mask was to remind women taking part at social gatherings and convents about the vow of silence. To secure the mask, women had to clench a string in their mouth, thus, couldn’t speak without ruining their attire.

Detailed schedule of the Venice carnival can be found here.

Below you can take a glimpse, how Venice celebrated the carnival last year.

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