History of the Venice Carnival

by Elena Binda
Masks at Venice Carnival

Having the chance of visiting the city during Venice Carnival means enjoying an age-old festivity, one of the Lagoon’s most deeply-rooted traditions, and a marvellous opportunity to admire the skills of Venetian artisans.

Old and New traditions

The history of Carnival is both recent and ancient. It was only during the second half of the 20th century that the Carnival of Venice became an event that attracted sponsors and television stations. However, the origins of the festival date back to ancient times.

Carnival in Greek and Roman Society

Greek Masks

In Greek and Roman society, there were periods during which people were allowed to take liberties denied to them during the rest of the year. Protected by masks, poor people were allowed to make fun of the rich without being punished: the Romans used to say ‘semel in anno licet insanire’ (‘once every year it is legitimate to go crazy’), while according to an Italian proverb ‘a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale’ (‘at Carnival anything goes!’). This reversal of the rules was an invaluable outlet used by the authorities to keep the populace content.

Carnival and Christianity

Later, when Christianity took over, the festival was transformed into the last period of merrymaking prior to Lent, which is the period of repentance preceding Easter. Although dates differ slightly, Carnival is celebrated in all Catholic countries. It has retained the original custom of wearing masks, with the addition, over time, of numerous other rituals.

Carnival at the Times of the Serenissima

The festivities were highlighted by the many symbols that marked Venice’s success as a maritime power. These symbols included the ‘fireworks’ discovered by Marco Polo in China, and the many influences from the East portrayed in costumes emulating those worn by Moors, Turks and Tartars encountered during explorations around the world. The Doges used the opulence of the festivities as a measure of their power, and thus, these celebrations became even more grandiose.

Carnival during the Serenissima

Carnival today: a celebration of craftsmanship

A costume at Venice Carnival

Artisans adept at working leather, textiles, wood or glass used Carnival as a proving ground to hone and demonstrate their skills: costumes and footwear, masks and stage sets became increasingly elaborate and impressive, and continues to be a triumphant part of Venice’s cultural heritage.

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