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Carnival in Venice

About Venice


If you are planning to go on a winter vacation in Italy, leave a spot between February and March because something interesting happens in that period in Venice. Everybody knows about Rio Carnival, but Venice Carnival has nothing on it. Believe us.

Although it is not the most imposing, Venice Carnival is one of the oldest and most glamour worldwide. It has its roots in Ancient Rome, when spring was welcomed by getting insane… Literally. The motto of these kind of celebrations was semel in anno licet insanire, which means once a year it is legit to go crazy. In this mood, the upper classes allowed the lower ones to act like them. This easily turned into opened derision, but rich people do not even dare to complain... Of course they did not. This was a tool to vent all the frustration of an entire life of oppression and poverty. One word of disagreement and here we go with bloody rebellions.

Masks have always been the crown jewel of Venetian Carnival, with sumptuous dresses and finely decorated face-masks. Therefore, mask makers held a special position in society and were considered real VIPs. They did a very cool job, indeed. One of the best-known masks is the Baùta, the larva. Very versatile and easy to make, it is still one of the most popular. It is simply a white and big mask, with two big holes for the eyes and two smaller ones for your nostrils. It covers the whole face and does not allow to see anything but your eyes, culminating into a big sharpened protrusion. You can easily eat and most of all drink, by the way. No worries. Stuffing yourself with food or getting drunk will be no problem. It is usually worn with a huge, dark cape known as tabarro, and a big black hat. Both men and women can wear it, though it is meant to be a masculine mask. Please, notice that people used it also out of the Carnival context. Maybe it sounds pretty weird, but today’s fashion is not that better after all…

The Moretta was the most popular women disguise. Imported from French tradition, it was made of a little oval and velvety mask to be worn with elegant and refined evening dresses. Its most interesting feature is that to wear it, women had to hold a button in their mouth and they could not speak for the whole time. A dumb woman… Every man’s dream. Jokes aside, this mask was very functional for Venetian Morette. Since they had to stay silent and had the whole face covered in black, they felt completely unrecognizable and allowed to go as wild as they want.

Another typical mask, is the Gnaga. The mask was made of everyday clothes of lower class women. The disguise was completed by a cat-alike face mask, usually holding a basket containing a cat. People dressed up like this used to act like peasants, shrilly shouting at people and meowing. Sometimes they also dressed up as wet nurses, with other fellow madmen acting like pouting kids. Last but not least, this was a feminine mask used by men to masquerade as women… The ultimate Carnival insanity. Amazing.

After this brief overview, let’s have a little history lesson now. Carnival is the most iconic Venetian tradition of all. Even the word itself was invented by some Doge long ago.

Carnival (or some very similar ancestor of it) is witnessed in Venice since 1094 and was officially made a public holiday far back in 1296, to grant people a little joy before practically dying inside during Lent. Can you imagine that? America was still undiscovered and people already invented Carnival. Fun beats knowledge. It is a matter of priorities, you know.

In ancient times, Carnival started the first Sunday of October and intensified during the Epiphany to reach its top for ten days just before Lent. Three months of celebration… And then Lent. It feels like the most entertaining and depressing at the same time. At least they enjoyed life for a while.

However after Venice downfall as a power in the late XVIII century, the city started declining slowly and in the end conquerors banned Carnival celebrations. The thing is that Carnival has always aimed at having fun and escaping from daily routine, but you know how human beings are. We easily fall by the wayside. Of course Carnival was not an exception, it was the actual rule. So the situation often went out of control and the ruling power had already been trying to impose prohibitions and restrictions many times before, but in vain... Then Napoleonic and Austrian domination came. Goodbye happiness for almost two centuries. Killing joy has never been that easy. It was only in the 1970s that Carnival was officially restored and it has never stopped again, since then.

This is what history tells, but there are so many interesting stories lying behind this thousand-years tradition. Protected by the anonymity their masks gave them, people felt free to sow their wild oats with all the consequences deriving from it. Maybe it was a huge matter for the governments of that time, but these are just funny tales it is worth to tell.

For example it was very common for men to dress up in religious clothes and enter places of worship to run their love affairs (euphemism of the year) with their partners or even with church people! It happened so frequently that in 1458 entering religious places while wearing a mask was officially forbidden.

Public order was also threatened by the fact that the huge capes people wore to masquerade as Baùte perfectly hid weapons and dangerous stuff. In case of assaults or fights, punishment could be very heavy. Anyway, apparently people did not care. An Italian famous proverb goes more or less like during Carnival every trick is fair. Maybe they just took this philosophy too seriously.

Being a prostitute was not considered decent job, of course. Not officially, at least. Anyway, it was very appreciated by Venetians and foreigners. So during Carnival, prostitution was subjected to strict limitations to keep the situation under control. Prostitutes were imposed with strong prohibitions and punishments. It actually contained the problem, but it did not fully worked. The ruling power probably underestimated the fact that masks hid people’s real identity and it was quite easy to bypass the law. It maybe slipped their mind; it happens.

All this not to mention how wisely gamblers used their masks to escape from their creditors and married people to escape marital life, which cost both categories further restrictions.

No rule could stop Carnival anarchy, by the way. Even during the Napoleonic and Austrian bans, celebrations remained hidden for a long while. Venetians would have never given up their favorite tradition and kept on celebrating Carnival, hidden around the main isles of the lagoon. Thank you Venetian party harder of the past, you saved Carnival from oblivion.

Today it lasts ten days only, but you can feel its thrill for the whole year. Not only is Carnival very heartfelt in Venice, maybe it is a very part of it. For ten days fancy-dress parties and galas are all over the city, and people are so cheerful and marry. It is easy to understand why. Party all day, party all night, party everywhere… It feels like an r&b song, but it is the actual reality in Venice during those days. Bellissimo.

Living this experience is something you absolutely have to do at least once in a lifetime. Traditions need to be honored, do not miss the chance to honor the most entertaining of all.

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