The Carnival of Venice, which has just ended a few days ago, if not the most grandiose, is certainly the best known for the charm it exerts and the mystery it continues to possess even now that 900 years have passed since the first document that refers to this famous celebration.
Who has never heard of it?
There are memories of the Carnival festivities since 1094, under the doge Vitale Falier, in a document that speaks of public entertainment in the days preceding Lent.
Historically, It’s said that the Carnival of Venice was official started from a victory of the Republic of Venice against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico di Treven in the year 1162. In the honour of this victory, the people started to dance and gather in San Marco Square.
The first official document declaring Carnival a public holiday is dated back 1296 when the Senate of the Republic declared the last day of Lent a public holiday.
However, the Carnival has much older traditions that refer to ancestral cults to celebrate the transition from winter to spring, cults present in almost all societies, just think of the Latin Saturnalia or Dionysian cults in which the motto was “Semel in anno licet insanire” (“Once a year it is permissible not to have brakes”). This is similar to the spirit that animates the Venetian oligarchies, with the concession (and the illusion) for the humblest classes to become, for a short period of the year , similar to the powerful, allowing them to publicly cheer the rich wearing a mask on their faces. A useful relief valve to control social tensions.
If once the Carnival was much longer and even began the first Sunday of October to intensify itself the day after the Epiphany and culminate in the days preceding Lent, today the Carnival lasts about ten days, even if carnival fever begins long before even. Perhaps it is not unfair to say that, in Venice, the carnival fever never ceases during the year: a subtle euphoria sneaks through the streets of the one of the most beautiful city in the world and grows imperceptibly with the same naturalness of water, fading the contours of things and suggesting mysteries and atmospheres of times gone by.
Once Carnival allowed the Venetians to leave aside the occupations to devote themselves entirely to entertainment, and people flocked to admire the most varied attractions: jugglers, acrobats, dancing animals, while trumpets, drums and other instruments were almost consumed by the use. The vendors sold dried fruit, chestnuts, fritòle (a sort of pancakes) and sweets of all kinds, very careful to point out the origin from distant countries of their merchandise. Venice, a large commercial city, has always had a privileged link with distant countries, with the Orient in particular, and in every edition of the Carnival, there is a reference, a Red Thread that continues to tie the best known party of the Serenissima to the legendary voyage of Marco Polo to China at the court of Qubilai Khan where he lived for about twenty-five years. A Red Thread that runs along the ancient and notorious Silk Road.
Some Carnivals are popular also in history.
For example in 1571, on the occasion of the great battle of the Christian forces in Lepanto, on Carnival Sunday, a parade of allegorical floats was set up: the Faith towered over a chained dragon and was followed by theological virtues, Victory overpowered the vanquished and finally Death with the sickle in hand to signify that, in that victory, she too had triumphed.
In 1664 on the occasion of the wedding at the Cornaro house in San Polo, a grandiose and amusing masquerade was organized in which many young patricians participated. A magnificent parade crossed Venice and made stops in two of the most famous monasteries of the city: San Lorenzo and San Zaccaria, where the nuns of noble lineage lived.
On February 27, 1679 the Duke of Mantua paraded with a retinue of Indians, blacks, Turks and Tartars who, along the route, defied and fought six monsters, and after killing them they began to dance.
The Carnival had a moment of stasis after the fall of the Republic of Venice because it was frowned upon by the temporary occupation of Austrians and French. Under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor and later Emperor of Austria, Francis II, the festival was outlawed entirely in 1797 and the use of masks became strictly forbidden.
The tradition was preserved only in the islands Burano and Murano.
It reappeared gradually in the nineteenth century, and after a long absence, the Carnival returned in 1979.
The Carnival of our day is a magnificent happening that involves big sponsors, TV networks, cultural foundations and attracts crowds of curious from all over the world with thousands of masks and a peaceful and flamboyant occupation of the lagoon.
Every year, approximately 3 million visitors come to Venice for the Carnival. Among the most important events is the contest for la maschera più bella (“the most beautiful mask”) which is judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers, but also il volo dell’Angelo (the flight of the Angel), and the beauty contest for the “Maria of the year”.