Oldest available records of history carnival Venice suggest that the first such festival was held in 1162, as a celebration of “Repubblica della Serenissima‘s” (as Venice was known at the time) victorious war against Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia….
…making the event the oldest (still organized) such festival in history.
This important military victory was celebrated (around Shrove Tuesday) with a slaughtering a bull and 12 pigs in the Piazza San Marco, highlighted by dances, with magicians, and other local entertainers joining in on the festivities, making it a major event.
The event became an annual festival in the Venetian calendar, and grew in size and importance.
First documented mentions of masks in the history carnival Venice was a century later, from 1268.
These masks made the events unique, and also (temporarily) overturned the social order in the city.
In fact, many believe the mask use was a Venetian response to one of the most rigid class hierarchies in European history.
Rulers of Venice, the Doges, acknowledged the dangers masks allowed, as their use was popular outside of the festival weeks, originally banned only from 5th October to 16th December.
Doges soon passed laws limited mask use to only within the festival period.
Over time, by the 15th century, the event became known as a ‘carnival’, a word derived from Latin: “Farewell, meat“.
As Lent (starting on Ash Wednesday) obliged people to fast, the period up to Ash Wednesday was time of using up all the supplies of food…
…and thus the religious tradition was used in the history carnival Venice as an excuse to have the party (that originally had pagan festival features).
That party was held in throughout the city and its…
- gambling dens,
- theatres, cafés,
- wine shops and
- restaurants, with
- street performers, such as
- singers, and
- ropewalkers showing their skills in the Piazza San Marco.
Many popes, such as Clement IX, XI, and Benedict XIII, tried to influnce Venice to have a more religiously correct carnival festival (but with little luck).
The history carnival Venice ‘golden age‘ was in the 18th century, a period of decline in Venice’s power and wealth, accompanied by an unprecedented culturally creative period and consumption of pleasures.
This consumption of pleasure was underlined by the European tradition of “Grand Tour“, where rich young nobles would travel through European destinations, often participating in the carnival, and spending small fortunes in the city while doing so.
Best known portrayals of this era are:
- paintings by Francesco Guardi and
- diaries by Giacomo Casanova.
The event’s significance declined over the years, and the use of masks in everyday life, was severely restricted at the same time, being limited to just 3 months from December 26, by the late 18th century.
Carnival in Venice was finally banned by Mussolini in the 1930s.
However, the tradition was revived in 1979, by a group of Venetians and outside supporters of the city, and it regained a worldwide fame within a few years.
Today, the event brings tens of thousands of tourists to the city during a period, which otherwise would be low season for Venetian tourism.
During the event days, there are:
- public events,
- concerts, as well as
- private parties (especially within the city’s best hotels) and
- souvenir shops selling everything carnival related.
The carnival mask, in fact, have also become a major cottage industry, selling well all year round.
One of the better mask makers is ‘Carta Alta‘, whose website also has instructional videos about how the masks are made.
If you’d like to participate in this tradition, the modern day version is held up until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, beginning two Saturdays before the Tuesday.
Upcoming Venice carnival days include Carnival of Venice 2016: January 30th – February 9th.
Organizers of the event have, during the last few years, added a prior weekend to the official program.