Those who follow the Christian faith will already know about the period of Lent. For 40 days, believers fast, or otherwise give up an indulgence, as a way to show their dedication to God.
With Lent being a period of fastidious withdrawal from some of the finer temptations in life, you can leave it to the Italians, particularly the Venetians, to make the day leading up to it something to remember. Where most celebrate this day, known as Shrove Tuesday, with pancakes, the Venetians take things a few steps further with an elaborate festival.
If you’ve ever been to an Italian festival before, you already know that they are truly spectacular events. They bring together people from all over the world to celebrate, with gorgeous Italian wine flowing and many culinary delights to be had.
But even amongst this backdrop, the Carnival of Venice manages to stand out. In fact, it has achieved worldwide fame thanks to the elaborate masks that many revellers wear during the event.
But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the origins of the festival, and how it evolved into what we know in the present day.
The Early Origins
Much like many other Italian events, the Carnival of Venice has an air of mystery. The most popular origin story claims that the carnival was born out of the victory of the Venetian Republic against Ulrico di Treven in 1162. If that’s the case, that makes the carnival a cultural celebration that stretches all of the way back to the time before Italy was a united country.
It is said that the people of Venice began dancing in San Marco Square to celebrate the victory, with those celebrations taking place every year from then on.
Over the centuries, the carnival became key to the entire city. It was a part of the Italian renaissance for many years, drawing together the artists and glitterati of the day. Once the 17th century arrived, the carnival became a way for Venice to maintain its stellar reputation throughout the world. This continued on into the 18th century, with the carnival both being an occasion to celebrate and enjoy the pleasures and trappings of life, while serving a secondary purpose of protecting Venetians from anguish.
Unfortunately, it was during this period that the carnival’s dedication to pleasure and celebration caught the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II. Known for his austere view of religion, Francis II decided to outlaw the carnival in 1797, with a particular focus on the elaborate masks that had become such an important part of the event.
The ban lasted for a surprisingly long time. The carnival started showing signs of life again in the 19th century, however, it was not the joyous gathering that it had previously been. Instead, on the few occasions that it took place, it offered an opportunity for artists to congregate and show off their oeuvres to their contemporaries.
This stop-start routine finally came to a close towards the tail end of the 20th century. In 1979, the Carnival of Venice was restored as the annual fixture it had been for so many years. It was part of a concerted effort to reinvigorate Venice and shed light on the region’s cultural significance. Plus, the extra tourism money would not go amiss.
Today, about 3 million people journey to Venice every year to take part in the festivities, many of whom come wearing stunning masks that become the centrepiece of the occasion. In fact, a panel of international fashion designers now judge the masks each year, with the most spectacular of the year winning a prestigious award.
The Story of the Masks
So, we know that the masks make up an important part of the Carnival of Venice. But where did they come from.
It seems like the story is just as shrouded in mystery as the festival’s actual origins. Some historians believe that the masks served as a way to rid the carnival of the hierarchical class system in Venice during the middle ages. With everybody’s faces covered, nobody could make judgements against another based on their social status, thus allowing everybody to enjoy the festivities.
That seems to be the most likely story of any, and the masks of today tend to reflect the styles of the ancient versions. For example, it’s not uncommon to see revellers in old doctor’s “plague” masks, with the huge beak being instantly recognisable. Other masks celebrate the region’s military history, or have some other form of cultural significance that ties them inexorably to Venetian history.
The masks also occasionally seep out into popular culture. Most notable is the videogame Assassin’s Creed II, in which the protagonist, Ezio, must don a mask to gain entrance into the carnival so he can track one of his targets undetected.
Today, the Carnival of Venice lasts for several weeks, with each day seemingly hosting a different theme for revellers to embrace. Several balls take place, in addition to a host of public events that celebrate the history and culture of the region. Naturally, the event also offers visitors the chance to sample the culinary delights of Venice. Wine flows like water, and organisers offer some truly delectable treats to those who visit. It’s truly a unique take on Italian culture and one that defines Venice in the court of popular opinion.
The Final Word
This year’s Carnival of Venice begins on 27th January and will run for over two weeks, finally concluding on 13th February.
That means there’s still plenty of time to get tickets and take part in a rich cultural event that features Italian wine, food, and some many different themes and celebrations that you’re positively spoilt for choice.
And just a final note. While the masks are an important part of the Carnival of Venice, you don’t have to wear them. Many revellers do so they can blend into the festivities. However, nobody will bat an eyelid if you choose not to wear a mask. You can enjoy the event just the same.