THE HISTORY OF VENICE CARNIVAL

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The above and below pictures were taken during the Carnival of Venice in St. Mark's Square on February 25-26th 2017

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Venice Carnival is the most famous Carnival celebrated in Europe and definitely the most elegant in the world.

The historical origins of the Carnival of Venice are to be found in very old Greek and Roman traditions: in ancient Greece, during religious rites dedicated to the God Dionisus, the "the Dionysiac cults", people used to wear masks to participate in public symbolic representations; the aim of such theatrical events was to bring mankind to a higher level of harmony with Nature, far from the social conventions of everyday life. In ancient Rome, the Goverment organised banquets and sacrifices to honor the God Saturn, the "Saturnalia": during such religious events, the social hierarchy was not standing anymore: slaves were allowed to behave as free citizens; a "prince" was drawn for and given full powers: he would wear a funny, colorful mask to represent the mockery of Roman aristocracy.

It is believed that the Republic of Venice was inspired by these Greek and Roman ancient traditions to create the Carnival as a concessions, especially to the more humble classes of the population, of a period of time devoted to parties and fun.

The word "Carnival" comes from the Latin expression "carnem levare" (do not eat meat) that was used in the Middle Ages by the Church to warn the faithful that they were not supposed to eat meat from the first day of Lent (that is from the next day after the last Carnival day) to Holy Thursday. Some historians believe that the Carnival was originally a party organized to celebrate the beginning of Spring.  

Official documents from as early as the VIII centuries witness a tradition in Venice of a public party that features the immoderate enjoyment of food, drinks and “sexual pleasures”. The first official governmental document, that mentions the Venice Carnival, was issued by Doge Falier in 1094. It was a document about public events and games and the word "Carnival" appears for the first time.  


The history of the Carnival of Venice: It is believed that the Venetian Government decided to let the people have a few days for fun and games and even mock the aristocracy and the Authorities. The complex administration of Venice, frequent wars, heavy taxation, general restrictions, used to inevitably lead to people discontent. By letting people have a few days of fun, the Republic intended to work off social tensions. By wearing masks both the rich and the poor could make fun of virtually everything with no risk of being identified and suffer bad consequences.

Between the XI and XII century the Venice Carnival used to go on for 6 weeks, from December 26th to Ash Wednesday. During the Venice Carnival, the Republic of Venice organized many different entertainments for the people. Musicians, dancers, jugglers and acrobats were invited to perform in the streets. The Venice Carnival drew the attention of people to such an extent that business and everyday activities took a far second place.

The Carnival of Venice developed very soon a close relationship with the theatre, paving the way for the “street theatre” and improvised representations such as the “Commedia dell'Arte” where dressed up, masked actors could criticize and mock politicians and governors. Apart from the big party outdoors, performances, shows and short plays were also organized in small theatres, pubs and private houses and they were famous for being very transgressive and lustful.

More and more often criminals started to take advantage of the Venice Carnival and the chance of going round in disguise, to hide their identity, freely commit any sort of crimes and get away with it thanks to their Venice Carnival masks.

This phenomenon grew to such an extent that the Republic of Venice had to issue some special decrees to limit the use of masks: in 1339 the Doge issued a decree to forbid the use of masks and Carnival costumes during the night; in 1458 another decree forbade wearing masks when entering “holy places” dressed up as a woman or a priest as apparently some people used such disguise to enter churches, convents and monasteries undisturbed in order to commit “indecent behavior”. In 1703 another decree forbade entering gambling houses and casinos in Carnival costumes and masks as too many gamblers used them to hide their identity and vanish before paying their debts.

The masks, the transgression, the street shows and the sumptuous masked balls organized in the most elegant Venetian palaces made the Carnival incredibly famous in the XVII Century and Venice started then to attract thousands of visitors from all European countries.

The Carnival was celebrated every year until Venice fell under the domination of the King of Austria that banned it in 1797. At that time Venetians still used to wear masks on a number of occasions to hide their identity especially while gambling or pursuing  risky love affairs. The use of masks was so common that a few law were approved to discourage such libertine habits.

The last historical Carnival of Venice was held in 1797: the loss of indipendence to Napoleon in 1797 determined the end of the Carnival for about two centuries. The use of Carnival costumes was banished apart from the masked balls in private palaces; the street shows and outdoors gatherings was also banned.

The Venice Carnival came back in the IXX century but was mostly celebrated in private parties. Only in 1967 Venetians started again to organize parties with costumes and masks parades in an attempt to revive the old tradition of the Venice Carnival. Only in 1979 the Municipality of Venice decided to bring back the Venice Carnival to its original splendor and for the first time an actual schedule of the street shows was issued in an effort to revive the traditions and culture of Venice and restore the Carnival to its original splendor.

The event has become so spectacular that nowadays about 3 million tourists come to Venice every year to see the Carnival.

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The Angel's flight.

Every year the Venice Carnival begins with the "Angel's flight" (volo della Colombina=the flight of the little dove). This event dates back to the XV century when a very skilled Turkish acrobat carried out a memorable spectacular performance: he managed to walk on a very long rope that, on one side was tied on a boat and and on the other side was tied on Saint Marks Square bell tower. The acrobat managed to reach the bellfry walking on the rope with the aid of a a balance bar only. During his descent, he stopped in front of the balcony of the Doge's Palace and bowed to the Doge. The crowd went crazy when the young acrobat reached the bell tower and the event was so spectacular that the Republic of Venice decided that such performance was to be repeated every year as the official ceremony that would open the Carnival of Venice editions to come. The event was then called "the flight of the Turk" (lo svolo del Turco). Over the years the event went on in different variations to offer the crowd new versions of the show and both professional tightrope walkers and young Venetian acrobats would challenge the ordeal. The event was then called "Flight of the Angel" when one of such versions entailed an acrobat who was linked to the rope with rings and went down very fast from the bell tower to the Doge's balcony. The Doge would always give the acrobats either presents or money as a reward for their courage.

The show was forbidden in 1759 after when unfortunately the acrobat on duty fell down from the rope amids the horrified crowd. it was then decided that the acrobats would be replaced by a large wooden dove that during the flight from the bell tower to the Doge's palace would drop confetti and flowers on the crowd. From then on the show would be called "the flight of the dove".

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THE HISTORY OF VENICE CARNIVAL