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The World’s Oldest Carnival

People in disguise by the Rialto Bridge
Two people dressed up for Carnival
Carnival regatta along the Grand Canal

The Venice carnival, devised so that the nobility and commoners could mix in a cacophony of anonymous fun, is today one of the city’s main tourist attractions.
Carnival, whose name is a combination of the Latin terms carnem and levare (meat and abandon), is a festival associated with Catholicism, although it is not recognised as a religious festivity by the church. It takes place just before the beginning of the Christian Lent starting on Ash Wednesday. The dates are not set, but it almost always falls in February. The tradition is celebrated in several places around the world, the most famous in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Venice, the oldest.

The Venetian carnival, which lasts ten days and ends on Shrove Tuesday, is undoubtedly the most special and picturesque, not just because of the cold; it is not unusual for temperatures to drop during the festivities and for snow to make an appearance, but also all the history behind it and, above all, the costumes and masks.

The festival was first documented in the late 11th century, although it was not made official until 1296 when Christopher Tolive proposed it to the authorities. Tolive, secretary to the Doge, the leading authority of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, believed it would benefit the nobility to mix with the common people to have fun. After securing the support of the leaders, the carnival was widely accepted in Venetian high social spheres, where the anonymity of the mask was seen as an excellent opportunity to run wild. The lower classes and the clergy also welcomed the chance to dress up themselves as nobility, demons, monsters and the like.

The Venetian population would continue to wear such disguises for centuries to come, reaching a peak in the 18th century, a time when nobles and even the royal family joined in the revelry. In that century, the governors allowed people to spend almost half the year in disguise and not just during the strict ten days of carnival.

The festival was deeply affected by the appearance of new economic routes in America, which weakened the potential of Venice, and the final blow was when Napoleon banned it completely in 1797, after conquering the city. Since that date, the Carnival of Venice was outlawed until the early 20th century, when it began to reappear. Nevertheless, it was not officially included in the Venetian calendar until 1979, when carnival began to explode in popularity once again. A sign of this renewed acceptance is the proliferation of mask shops, such as the famous La Bottega dei Mascareri and Ca' Macana, which have become prestigious establishments and are a reference in the Veneto capital.

Nowadays, carnival is a major tourist draw, and is fiercely promoted by the Venetian authorities. The festival programme includes costume parades in the Piazza San Marco, regattas in gondolas along the Grand Canal and mask exhibitions and workshops in the different campi or squares around the city. There is also the Festival of the Marias, a parade with the twelve most beautiful young Venetian women, and the Flight of the Angel, where a disguised acrobat descends from the Campanile of San Marco down a steel cable.

The magic of the Carnival of Venice manages to revive the almost millennial Venetian tradition of disguise and anonymity for a few days of fun that return the city to its most splendid and vibrant times.

The Disguises of Goethe and Casanova

The German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who visited the Venice Carnival on more than one occasion, moved round the Canals of the city with neither mask nor disguise; he was such a cheapskate he preferred not to spend his money. He declared himself so ugly as to not need a mask. In contrast, the Italian philanderer and diplomat Giacomo Casanova, was partial to disguise. He dressed up as Pierrot at the palace balls to mix with the courtesans, thus increasing his legendary fame as a womanizer.

The Origin of the Festival of the Marias

This festival, which consists of a parade through St. Mark’s Square of the twelve most beautiful and embellished young Venetian women, has its origins in the 9th century. At that time, all couples that were about to marry were blessed during the Purification of Mary. Among the girls, the twelve poorest were chosen and dressed in the most luxurious clothes. In 973, some pirates descended on the city and kidnapped the young women, but the Venetians managed to rescue them and, since then, their victory has been celebrated every year.

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