In Venice, Italy, Carnevale is held for the 10 days preceding Ash Wednesday, the first day Lent. Though scholarly attempts have tried to link carnevale’s origins to such pagan Graeco-Roman feasts as Saturnalia, it most certainly was an established celebration by the late middle ages. The word Carnevale (carnival in English) derives from the Latin carnem levare, which refers to the fasting of meat – carne – that characterized the abstinence of the faithful during the 40 days of Lent.
Paradoxically, the word carnevale has become synonymous with over-indulgence in food, drink and bodily pleasures. However, its modern-day observance in Italy seems much more innocent than in times past – an occasion to live out ones’ fantasies in dress and manner.
In the Middle Ages, when class structure was strict and unyielding, Carnevale was a time when all people came together without class distinction. The people of Venice disguised themselves in all types of costumes and antique dress, and the folly and madness of Carnevale passed from the streets and into the great palazzi (houses) which were open to all.
The Rules of the Mask imposed by the Venetian state stipulated that disguises were to be worn only from St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26) through Shrove Tuesday, and transgressors could be sentenced to two years in prison. By the 18th century, as Venice slipped into decay all such rules were rescinded. Carnevale lasted six months, in order to attract badly needed tourist dollars and to respond to a decadent society’s need for unfettered acting out.
For hundreds of years the Carnevale tradition in Venezia grew and flourished, with increasingly elaborate costumes and even more lavish festivities, including circus-like street performances. Artistically and musically the Carnevale Veneziano came to its highest level during the Barocco and Rococo periods, the time of Veronese, Tiepolo and Vivaldi. Not only were costumes and masks used during the carnevale season, they were also used at other times of the year in everyday life, almost becoming a way of life. The use of masks and costumes had a leveling effect on society so that the nobility could easily mix with the lower classes and so that clandestine transactions of the heart or purse could take place without recrimination.
Certain masks were legion. The larva, an eerie white mask worn by both sexes, was made of papier maché and was usually worn with a three-cornered hat and a short cloak that was used to cover the mouth. This ensemble was called a bauta. The round, very demure black velvet moretta was worn only by women, while the feminine, feline-faced gnaza was a disguise very popular among homosexuals.
Toward the close of the 17th century the great era of the Carnevale in Venezia ended, due to pressure from the stern morality of the Counter Reformation that saw much harsher disciplines meted out through the entire Roman Catholic world.
There were several unsuccessful attempts to revive Carnevale, first by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, and again in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1980 that the revival finally took hold.
As for current Venetian politics, mayors come and mayors go, but gossip has it that your stand on Carnevale can have a lot to do with your tenure. "Last year’s Carnevale was nothing," sniffs a local, "That’s why we have a new Mayor."
During Carnevale, Venezia crackles with excitement and gaiety. The atmosphere is different than the gaudy Mardi Gras of Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans; Venetians are not necessarily more restrained, but their Carnevale breathes a sophistication born of long tradition. Fantasy is allowed full sway. Costumes vary with the imagination and inspiration of the participants. There are exotic birds, fantasy images, whole groups dressed alike, women as Doges (the once powerful rulers of Venice) and men as pampered courtesans. The most popular costumes of all are those inspired by the 18th century’s Commedia Dell’Arte, and you will see many variations of Arlecchino, Punchinello, Columbine and Pierrot.
But it’s more than just a costume party. It is rather like slipping through a time warp to a magical time when the Doges ruled. Mystery lurks in the purple shadows of the ponti (bridges). A stately gondola slips silently out of the fog, bearing a mysterious masked passenger. High above the rooftops is heard the eerie call of the pipestrelli (bats). You stand, hypnotized by the lights reflected on the water, lost in dreams. Somewhere in the distance the sound of music and laughter becomes an irresistible magnet, pulling you back to the gaiety of the Piazza San Marco and Carnevale Veneziano.
The fun of a Venetian festival does nothing to raise the temperature, Jacqueline Harmon Butler says through chattering teeth.