In the mists of winter, after the briefest of January slumbers, the floating city of Venice awakens in an explosion of color and splendor. Revelers of all ages arrive from the four corners of the earth to participate in the world’s greatest masquerade ball. It is Carnival season in La Serenissima, there is a buzz in the air, grown men and women are children again. It is a time of spectacle, grand parades, and dancing in the streets. It is a time of lavish masquerade balls in elegant palazzos, loud disco parties in the market squares, and elaborate performances in Piazza San Marco. It is a time when, for two weeks in February, one of the world’s most beautiful and mysterious cities comes alive as a living work of art.
The origins of Carnival are ancient, complex, and somewhat uncertain. The name “Carne-Vale”, comes from the Latin meaning “farewell to flesh” and speaks to a time in the western agricultural calendar when stores of meat and other perishable goods would be running low, in late winter, auguring a time of leanness and fasting until the spring crops and hunting would resume. A period of feasting and merriment became traditional during this time, to enjoy the last bit of pleasure before the fast. When Christianity spread through Europe, these traditions were adopted into the feast of Fat Tuesday and the fast of Lent.
But the real origins of Carnival are even deeper than that, stemming from a collective need within all human communities for a time when the rules, taboos and conventions of everyday life are suspended, or turned upside down, and people are free to behave in ways they would normally consider inappropriate. There is evidence of Carnival-like activity in societies around the world–times of the year when masters serve their slaves, ordinary people don extraordinary masks and costumes, men dress as women and women and men, grudges are put aside, sexual taboos are lifted, and states of collective ecstasy are induced by music, dancing, chanting, drugs, or alcohol. It speaks to something deep within us, the desire to lose ourselves within the dancing crowd, to let go of the rules and identities that simultaneously define and confine us, and to give ourselves over to a state of abandon.
In Venice, Carnival and the donning of masks are traditions many hundreds of years old. In its heyday, the Venetian Carnival lasted over six months and the wearing of masks became an entrenched aspect of everyday activity. Originally masks were condoned as a way of easing class conflict: commoners in disguise could consort with nobility, and nobility could roam the streets without fear of detection. Leaders and state officials wore masks as a statement of anonymity and impartiality. All were equal under the mask. Usually, however, the donning of the mask served less high-minded, more illicit purposes. Masks were permission for licentiousness, a way of disguising one’s public face while one went off in the pursuit of pleasures not condoned by the mores of a Christian society–gambling, whoring, homosexual activity, secret trysts, under-the-table financial deals…
As Venice declined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from a glorious world power to a decadent European pleasure-center, the costumes became more ornate, and the rules associated with them became more elaborate. In the eighteenth century, Carnival reached its peak: Canals would be drained and turned into magic gardens complete with wood nymphs and strolling musicians; entire convents would empty out as masquerading nuns roamed the streets in search of amorous adventures; and an epic lover named Casanova was able to seduce half the women in Venice and still not be recognized by the authorities.
After Napoleon invaded and conquered Venice in the early nineteenth century, many Venetian traditions began to die out or were banned outright. By the turn of the twentieth century, Carnival was merely a memory in the minds of the oldest citizens. Evidence of the great masquerades existed only in drawings and paintings, in dusty library books, and in the occasional commedia dell’arte theater production.
It was not until the early 1980’s, when Carnival was re-introduced as an official Venetian holiday Celebration–mainly as a source for much-needed tourist revenue in the wintertime–that the masquerade reappeared on the streets of Venice.
At that time, the mask tradition had completely died out, and the early pioneers of the modern-day Venetian mask-making renaissance had to learn their trade by research, imagination, and experimentation. What has evolved from this unusual set of circumstances is an aesthetic that is part tradition, part archetype, and part wild fantasy. The touchstone for many masks are traditional characters of Italian Commedia dell’Arte–the doctor, the harlequin (joker), the lusty serving-maid, the bumbling Navy Captain, the cunning servant, the long-nosed hunchback–but the palette has been greatly expanded to include figures from Greek and Roman mythology, angels and demons, characters in period dress from the 15th to the 19th centuries, figures of death and darkness–in short, whatever one can imagine. Nowadays the most elaborate and interesting costumes are free from any specific cultural or historical reference, and delight in the sheer unabashed creative power of fantasy, artifice and anonymity.
The standard-bearers for the modern Carnival tradition are a legion of international aficionados, mostly from France, Italy, and Germany, who arrive every year with trunks full of costumes, a different one for each night…Many of these devotees spend the entire year designing and constructing their costumes for the Carnival. There are contests for the best costume; numerous balls, cocktail parties, and “chocolate parties” to attend; and plenty of opportunities to parade along the waterfront at Piazzetta San Marco and pose for the paparazzi. Only those with the best costumes are allowed into the famous Cafe Florian in Piazza San Marco, and visitors crowd around the windows outside to witness the anachronistic world within, where 17th-century courtesans consort with Marco Polo and Sherlock Holmes…
Though there are parades and activities aplenty in the daytime, it is in the dark of night that Carnival dons its true mask. The night is the world of secrets, the world of mystery, the world of the imagination, and it is in the grand masquerade balls and the spontaneous street corner celebrations where the fever of Carnival reaches its highest pitch. Inside candle-lit palazzos, string quartets, acrobats, and dance bands entertain modern-day courtiers and courtesans dressed in elaborate costumes, each paying 500 Euros per person for the privilege of hob-nobbing with royalty and celebrities. What begins as a fairly pompous and sedate affair usually turns into an all-out bash by the end of the night, when the spirits have worked their magic and the makeup starts to run. Many promoters of these parties like to portray their events as nights of fantasy where “anything could happen”…whether or not these events are really as wild and debaucherous as the promoters would have you believe is a secret to which only the initiated are privy.
Elsewhere in town, in the Rialto Fish Market and the Campo Santa Marguerita, throngs of Euro-youth ebb and flow through drum circles, fire acts, and main stages where DJ’s from all over Eurasia come to pump out the latest grooves. The bars in the squares spill out onto the streets, though many resourceful revelers have come with their own supplies of beer, wine, and liquor. The kids are less interested in costumes and more interested in partying, though many will be wearing store-bought masks or makeshift homemade costumes. The party continues late into the night, much to the dismay of the local inhabitants, who have lived in these neighborhoods for generations.
The celebrations last until Fat Tuesday (in Italian, Lunedi Grassi, in French Mardi Gras), and conclude with a final parade and crowning of the “Marias”, a concert, and fireworks. On Wednesday morning, the fast of Lent begins and Venice slips back into its winter slumber until the spring tourist season. Bandstands are dismantled, costumes put away, the crowds disappear, and the masquerade comes to a close, though masks will continue to be sold by the millions year-round. In the thirty years since Carnival was revived in Venice, the mask has become the defining iconographic symbol of the town, and few tourists can resist leaving her without buying a mask or two as souvenirs.
Though the Carnival today is a somewhat overcommercialized and superficial replica of the great mysterious Carnival of the Venetian past, it is still possible to walk the streets and alleyways and lose oneself imagining it all. Venice has always been a place that exists in the imagination as much as, if not more than, in reality. People come to Venice to pretend, to play make-believe; to don the mask and imagine they are living in some other time; some grander, more beautiful time; some more mysterious, licentious time, when there really was the possibility of outrageous goings-on…as if by the wearing of capes, gowns, and masks, they might be able to take one step closer to the magic and mystery of Venice, might step into the dream and live it, might actually feel the hearbeat of Carnival that exists within all of us, but which we in modern times seem unable to find, hard as we try.