Venice Carnevale is Italy’s top carnival or mardi gras celebration. Carnevale season lasts several weeks, culminating on the day of Carnival or Shrove Tuesday. During carnival season, Venice is filled with costumed characters, entertainment, and food stalls. It’s definitely a fun time to visit.
The Venice Carnival is the most internationally known festival celebrated in Venice, Italy, as well as being one of the oldest. This congregation of masked people, called Venice Carnival, began in the 15th century, but the tradition can be traced back to the beginning of the 14th Century.
During those years one of the first laws made by the Serenissima was that masks cannot be used around the city at night.
Later, Venice Carnival attracted foreigners – including princes – from all over Europe, who came to enjoy the wild festivities while spending fortunes.
During the Carnival period Venice offered numerous possibilities for spending money. The choices were various, with activities such as gambling dens, brothels, theatres, cafés, wine shops (licensed and illicit) and restaurants, as well as booths where one could see exotic animals, ropewalkers and jugglers.
The streets of Venice Carnival were full of people in masks, and no differentiation could be made between nobility and the common people. Generally, the costume worn was a cloak with a long-nosed mask. Also popular were masked couples, where a man and a woman would dress as allegorical characters.
In the squares street-artists and singers entertain with songs and music from their guitars, the guests of the Venice Carnival.
The Venice Carnival dissacratory nature reached its bottom when, during its last days, some masked people started to disturb the building of the preaching pulpits that were under construction for the religious traditions of Lent.
Beginning on S. Stefano Day (26th December) costumes were permitted through the entire period of the Venice Carnival (excluding the Festa delle Marie) which ends at the beginning of Lent. While the Doges reigned, costumes were also allowed from Ascension Day to 10th June, as well as for public banquets and other celebrations. However, they were not allowed to be worn from 5th October to 16th December.
Hiding personal identities was accepted by the “moral in kidding” of the aristocracy as well as by the interclassism Venice was founding its integrity of people on.
There is not much left today of the historical tradition of the Venice Carnival.
In the late 1970’s a popular spirit of Venice Carnival bloomed wild, young masked gangs started to throw weethstraw and eggs to not masqued people and spontaneous bands were playing everywhere around Venice; soon the aggressivity dimmed and city authorities began what is now a celebration of the Carnival, mainly for tourists. Unlike many Venetian celebrations that remain almost unknown to the public, Venice Carnival seems to be thriving as much as it ever did.
There are many enterteinments and interesting performances, aside of the real parties in Venetian taste that are often hidden for the large public, which is morelike to enjoy the Venice Carnival on the road.
Pay-for-the-party and souvenir shops are yet the easiest track for the tourists, but many curious meeting and experiences are as well available around, in Venice Carnival time.
The Venice Carnival is anyway an adventure worth to be experienced; better if you can do it with a native friend!
Types of Marks
Several distinct styles of mask are worn in the Venice Carnival, some with identifying names. People with different occupations wore different masks.
The bauta (sometimes referred as baùtta) is a mask, today often heavily gilded though originally simple stark white, which is designed to comfortably cover the entire face; this traditional grotesque piece of art was characterized by the inclusion of an over-prominent nose, a thick supraorbital ridge, a projecting “chin line”, and no mouth. The mask’s beak-like chin is designed to enable the wearer to talk, eat, and drink without having to remove it, thereby preserving the wearer’s anonymity. The bauta was often accompanied by a red or black cape and a tricorn.
In the 18th century, together with a black cape called a “tabarro”, the bauta had become a standardized society mask and disguise regulated by the Venetian government. It was obligatory to wear it at certain political decision-making events when all citizens were required to act anonymously as peers. Only citizens (i.e., men) had the right to use the bauta. Its role was similar to the anonymizing processes invented to guarantee general, direct, free, equal and secret ballots in modern democracies. Also, the bearing of weapons along with the mask was specifically prohibited by law and enforceable by the Venetian police.
Given this history and its grotesque design elements, the bauta was usually worn by men, but many paintings done in the 18th century also depict women wearing this mask and tricorn hat. The Ridotto and The Apple
Seller by Pietro Longhi are two examples of this from the 1750s.
The Columbina (also known as Columbine and as a Columbino) is a half-mask, only covering the wearer’s eyes, nose, and upper cheeks. It is often highly decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers. It is held up to the face by a baton or is tied with ribbon as with most other Venetian masks. The Columbina mask is named after a stock character in the Commedia dell’arte: Columbina was a maidservent and soubrette who was an adored part of the Italian theatre for generations. It is said it was designed for an actress because she did not wish to have her beautiful face covered completely. In fact, the Columbina is entirely a modern creation.
There are no historic paintings depicting its use on the stage or in social life.
While both men and women now wear this mask, it began as a woman’s analog to the bauta.
Medico della peste (The Plague Doctor)
The Medico della peste, with its long beak, is one of the most bizarre and recognisable of the Venetian masks, though it did not start out as carnival mask at all but as a method of preventing the spread of disease. The striking design originates from 17th-century French physician Charles de Lorme who adopted the mask together with other sanitary precautions while treating plague victims. The mask is often white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eyeholes covered with crystal discs, creating a bespectacled effect. Its use as a carnival mask is entirely a modern convention, and today these masks are often much more decorative.
The plague doctors who followed De Lorme’s example wore the usual black hat and long black cloak as well as the mask, white gloves and a stick (so as to be able to move patients without having to come into physical contact with them). They hoped these precautions would prevent them contracting the disease. Those who wear the plague doctor mask often also wear the associated clothing of the plague doctor. The popularity of the Medico della peste among carnival celebrants can be seen as a memento mori.
Moretta / Servetta muta
The moretta (meaning dark one lady) or servetta muta (meaning mute servant woman) was a small strapless black velvet oval mask with wide eyeholes and no lips or mouth worn by patrician women. It derived from the visard mask invented in France in the sixteenth century, but differed in not having a hole to speak through. The mask was only just large enough to conceal a woman’s identity and was held in place by the wearer biting on a button or bit (the women wearing this mask were unable to speak, hence muta) and was sometimes finished off with a veil. The Rhinocerous by Pietro Longhi depicts this mask in use in 1751. It fell into disuse about 1760.
The volto (Italian for face) or larva (meaning ghost in Latin) is the iconic modern Venetian mask: it is often stark white though also frequently gilded and decorated, and is commonly worn with a tricorn and cloak. It is secured in the back with a ribbon. Unlike the moretta muta, the volto covers the entire face including the whole of the chin and extending back to just before the ears and upwards to the top of the forehead; also unlike the moretta muta, it depicts simple facial features like the nose and lips. Unlike the bauta, the volto cannot be worn while eating and drinking because the coverage of the chin and cheeks is too complete (although the jaw on some original commedia masks was hinged, this is not a commedia mask and so is never hinged—the mouth is always completely closed).
Another classic character from the Italian stage, Pantalone, meaning he who wears the pants or father figure in Italian, is usually represented as a sad old man with an oversized nose like the beak of a crow with high brows and slanted eyes (meant to signify intelligence on the stage). Like other commedia masks, Pantalone is also a half mask.
Arlecchino, meaning harlequin in Italian, is a zanni character of the commedia. He is meant to be a kind of “noble savage”, devoid of reason and full of emotion, a peasant, a servant, even a slave. His originally wooden and later leather half-mask painted black depicts him as having a short, blunt, ape-like nose, a set of wide, round, arching eyebrows, a rounded beard, and always a “bump” upon his forehead meant to signify a devil’s horn. He is a theatrical counterpoint to and often servant of Pantalone, and the two characters often appeared together on the stage.
The Zanni character is another classic of the stage. His mask is a half mask in leather, showing him with low forehead, bulging eyebrows and an long nose with a reverse curve towards the end. It is said that the longer his nose, the more stupid he is. The low forehead is also seen as a sign of stupidity.
The mascherari (or mask-makers) had their own statute dated 10 April 1436. They belonged to the fringe of painters and were helped in their task by sign-painters who drew faces onto plaster in a range of different shapes and paying extreme attention to detail.