Carnival is an ancient custom, with origins dating as far back as 4000 years.
The earliest reference to ‘Carnevale’ is to be found in a document where the word is used for the first time by the Doge in 1094. During the period which usually lasted from 26 December to Ash-Tide, Venetians thronged the streets to celebrate, wearing masks and costumes. Very often however the celebrations started as early as October.
Etymologically the world carnevale derives from the latin : ‘carnem levare’, popularly translated as ‘carne vale’ or ‘carnasciale’, because originally it referred to the final meat banquet which would be held just before the period of abstinence and Lent fasting.
Carnival ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, or 40 days before Easter, when Lent begins.
Carnival has always been the ‘people’s celebration’.
In those times there was a climate of wide-spread partying in which the poor and rich alike disguised in masks could mingle in the streets and squares, a period during which class and gender distinctions were relaxed. In such a climate the mask offered the sole opportunity of distinguishing oneself further or to be considered everyone’s equal, in a heterogeneous society with strong social barriers.
The mask offered anonymous licence and at certain times in history was over-used. To such a degree that the wearing of masks became a status symbol and the Venetian Republic was obliged to pass specific and prohibitive decrees.
So Carnival, a cultural phenomenon present in many societies, acquired a separate and special meaning. It represented here an ‘excuse’ to disguise oneself and take part in the worldly, festive atmosphere of the city.
That is why carnival in Venice ended up lasting for several months.
The real Venetian mask is the bautta which could only have developed in this city. While elsewhere the mask represented a personality or state of mind, here it served only to hide.
A mask designed to this end had to be inexpressive, anonymous and functional.
The bautta is made up of a cloak (tabarro), a lace cape and a black silk hood (zendale), a three-pointed hat (tricorno) and over the face a white mask (called a ‘larva’, which word derives from the latin and was used when referring to ghosts and spectral masks) which guaranteed anonymity.
The ‘Plague Doctor’s mask is not a traditional Carnival one, rather it was used to protect the wearer from the terrible pestilence which struck Venice in 1630. The doctors wore it with a black cloak and gloves, filling the ‘becco’ (beak) with spices and medicinal herbs to neutralise the infectious germs of the plague. Later on in the Venetian Carnival ritual, this mask assumed the purging qualities of a lucky charm against contagious disease.
The official Carnival ended in 1797, when Venice was handed over to Austria with the Treaty of Campoformio, which suppressed many customs in order to quell rebellion on the part of the people. Only the magnificent private banquets held in palaces survived until the mid-19th century but there is no more evidence even of these after the union of Venice with the Kingdom of Italy.
In 1979 several associations brought back to life a tradition that had been all but abandoned and that had seen Venice at the height of her (albeit decadent) splendour during the 18th century. From then on it became a major Venetian tourist event and thousands of people from all over the world have flocked to the lagoon to celebrate the world of carnival in a unique way for the 10 days preceding Ash Wednesday.