The History of Venetian Carnival & Venetian Masks

The History of Venetian Carnival & Venetian Masks

Originally associated with the Catholic religious festival of Lent, the Italian tradition of Carnival is documented to have started as early as the 12th century. Carnevale, as the pre-Lenten festival is known throughout Italy, is believed to have derived its name from the Latin words carne levare - meaning to take away meat. Carnevale (carne + vale) literally translated means 'farewell to meat' - connecting it to the Lenten tradition of fasting

Carnevale was a public festival originally celebrated with the pre-Lent sacrificial slaughter of animals in the streets, gradually becoming a more elaborate affair with the wearing of costumes and masks and a certain amount of pageantry.

Mask wearing became an everyday occurrence allowing the people in the crowded city of Venice to go about their business in public without class-related scrutiny. This anonymity unfortunately led to a rise in crime and undesirable behaviour, which in turn led to legislation in the 14th century, prohibiting the wearing of a mask in public outside of designated carnival dates.

If you are planning on taking a trip to Venice to experience Carnevale first hand, you need to book your trip for these dates: Carnival 2010 - February 5th-16th. Book early to ensure you can get a flight and accomodation - this is Venice's busiest time of year!
  • In 1436 the Mascereri got their own mask maskers guild.
  • Mask wearing become prolific in 13th century Venice providing privacy and anonymity.
  • The resulting crime wave ended in the banning of masks outside of Carnival.
Once decrees pertaining to mask-wearing were passed, the wearing of masks was only permitted between the Festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen's Day on December 26th) at the start of the carnival season and midnight of Shrove Tuesday (usually in February), the culmination of the carnival.

This extended period of disguise created great demand for masks and in 1436 the Mask Makers (Mascherari) of Venice were officially recognised with their own Master Craftsmen's guild, with their own laws and recognised position in Venetian society.

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The Carnival of Venice is the most famous and internationally renowned of all the Italian carnivals, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors to the city, all to witness and partake in the eye-catching masked spectacle.

Wander the atmospheric streets as a tourist during Carnival and it's extremely easy to imagine you're back in the 13th century, mingling with masked performance artists in elaborate period costume, promenading amongst architecture unchanged in centuries.

Revealing the origins & secrets of Masquerade

The first documented evidence of Masquerading (the wearing of masks as disguise), in Venice dates back to 2nd May 1268 and pertains to a decree forbidding masqueraders to practice the game of 'the eggs' - the throwing of 'scented' eggs at the ladies of the court. The anonymity of the masked throwers, the reference to 'scented' - surely meaning 'bad eggs', and the fact that a decree had to be made at all, appears to indicate that the fun was a one way thing with the Egg game.

Masquerade Balls were first noted in Italy, particularly in Venice, during the 15th century Renaissance. A Masquerade Ball, Bal Masqué, or 'Masque' was a formally staged pageant event, with formal dancing and musical performances. Hosted by members of the upper and elite classes, to celebrate events such as marriages, guests attended in elaborate costume including a mask â?" providing a temporary anonymity which served to release them from the strict social conventions of their class. Entirely disguising each guest's identitity, added an often flirtatious 'guessing game' aspect to Masquerade Balls, introducing an element of excitement to an otherwise ordinarily tedious formal occasion.

Masquerade balls became common throughout mainland Europe in the 17th & 18th centuries. A Swiss Count, John James Heidegger, is credited with having introduced the Venetian fashion of a semi-public masquerade ball to London in the eighteenth century, with the first of these events being held at Haymarket Opera House.
  • Masks served to hide social status.
  • Francesco Guardi's painting of 18th Century Venice really captures this Grand Tour party city.
  • Mask-making is a cottage industry in modern day Venice.
The art of 'masquerading' was entirely banned in Venice in the 18th century when the Venetian Republic fell to the Austrian government. The Austrians forbade the use of masks for private parties and elite parties as well as for public events.

Also banned by Mussolini's fascist party during the 1930's, the tradition of masquerade was only properly revived and reclaimed in Venice as late as 1979, when a group of Venetian enthusiasts and artisans came together and created the first modern day Carnevale - Venice's answer to 'Mardi Gras' festivities elsewhere in the world.

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The reintroduction of Mardi Gras-style 'Carnevale' invoked not only a sense of cultural pride amongst the local Venetian community but also a realisation that Masquerade could be reborn as a new and vital form of tourism.

Millions of foreign visitors flood the streets of Venice every February, to both witness and take part in the masked spectacle, creating a vast seasonal revenue, through money spent in hotels, restaurants and other popular leisure pursuits.