History and Origin of Venice Carnival

Lady wearing full face Venetian mask

If there is one thing as old as the social phenomenon of identity, it’s the equally social attempt to conceal identity. From prehistoric cave paintings in the Dordogne depicting long perished animal masks, to the virtual avatars of the social networkers and role-players, barely a single era of humanity has gone by without the appearance of disguise in one form or another. Yet few eras in human history have produced masks as flamboyant and as stylish as that of the Venetian Republic, and even though Venice no longer exists as a sovereign state it has left a legacy that continues to influence popular costume and mask design to this day

It’s likely that masks were being used by individual Venetians as far back as the election of Orso Ipato – the first historically documented doge of Venice – in 726, but there is no evidence of any popular, collective use until the 2nd May 1268, when the Senate passed an ordinance outlawing a game which, known as ‘eggs,’ revolved around masked men throwing eggs filled with scented rosewater (usually out of windows) at passing women. Yet according to tradition the Carnival is just over a century older than this, arising from celebrations of Doge Vital Michiel II’s victory over Ulrich II of Treven in 1162. As a result of this victory Ulrich II was imprisoned by Venetian forces and then released on the condition that he furnish Venice with a yearly tribute of twelve pigs, twelve loaves of bread and one bull. Accordingly the ritual of slaughtering twelve pigs and a bull (symbolic Ulrich) in the Piazza di San Marco during Lent soon followed, and the claim that this was the origin of the Venetian Carnival is given credibility by a surviving 1296 Senatorial edict which declared Shrove Tuesday a public holiday

Precisely what role masks played in the earliest inception of the festival is a matter of debate amongst historians, but the fact that the mascherari, or mask makers, were given official artisan status by the Senate on 10th April 1436 would strongly suggest that they and their creations had assumed a very important role by this date. Such a view is supported by the proliferation of legislation before and after 1436, with an edict of the 22nd February 1339 banning the wearing of masks out in public at night, and a later statue of the 24th January 1458 prohibiting certain dubiously intentioned men from entering convents while attired as women. Both decrees cohere with the suggestion that masquerading had become so prevalent during the Carnival period that the authorities were having increasing difficulty in distinguishing law-abiding citizens from criminals

Yet of course this was one of the principal attractions of the mask: its potential for granting its wearer the anonymity and the confidence to cross the bounds of civilised behaviour, or at least to subvert what would ordinarily be expected of them as individuals with particular roles and identities. By the 18th Century it had become commonplace during the Carnival seasons for both men and women to visit Il Ridotti, or the gambling houses, while donning masks, and it was noted in a variety of contemporary guide books that the ‘Grand Tourists’ – usually young upper class Englishmen on a post-graduation tour of Europe – were liable to use the traditional disguises to visit the copious brothels of Venice. But as notorious as these young men were, they were a drop in the ocean compared to the members of the two local teams who would participate in the Guerra dei pugni (‘War of the Fists’), a competition which, often degenerating into pure bloodlust, was almost inevitably banned in September 1705 when fists were temporarily replaced by knives

Most activities associated with the Carnival were of a much less decadent and violent nature however, with the presiding ‘Sock Circles’ – six groups of aristocrats representing the six districts of Venice and so called for the distinctive varieties of coloured socks which distinguished them – arranging a wide variety of more sanitary attractions for both the locals and visitors alike. Many of these took on a notably circuslike flavour, with fireworks, juggling, human pyramid competitions (known as the forze d’Ercole – the labours of Hercules), puppet shows, fortune tellers, dancing dogs and monkeys, and perhaps most famously the volo del Turco (‘Flight of the Turk’), which saw an acrobat climb the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica by rope and then descend by a second rope to the awaiting Doge. Once back on solid ground the acrobat would then present the Doge with flowers and an overly reverent poem, although there were instances when he had been unable to make it that far, having gruesomely slipped and fallen to his death, and unsurprisingly the ‘flight’ is now recreated by a mechanical dove

Less risky but just as integral a part of the Carnival was the commedia del’arte (‘comedy of craft,’ or ‘professional comedy’), which from the 16th Century onwards made use of mobile stages to bring largely improvised comic plays to the wider Venetian public. Featuring a wide variety of colourfully exaggerated characters, the commedia was also significant for the prolific use it made of masks and in particular for the invention of various types of masks that would later become staples off the stage as well. In fact characters were often referred to as “masks,” a reference to how the traits of each could not be separated from the traits of the relevant mask, and also an indication of how the varieties of mask would often encourage revellers throughout the wider carnival to conform to type.

By the 18th Century the commedia had moved from being a somewhat amateurish and off the cuff street performance to a more professional and tightly scripted theatre production, and it was around this time that the Carnival period was actually extended for the purposes of synchronising with the opening of the theatres. In the past it had begun on December 26th (St. Stephen’s Day) and ended at the stroke of midnight when Shrove Tuesday became Ash Wednesday, but from the 18th Century on it began from the 5th October, albeit with a break for Christmas. This meant that the citizens of Venice could spend the best part of half a year gallivanting around in masks and costume, and while this state of affairs was just about tolerated by the local authorities so long as truly subversive activities were avoided, everything changed after the fall of the Republic in May 1797 to the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte

As part of the Treaty of Campo Formio, Venice became a province shared between France and Austria, with the metropolitan area of the now defunct state going to the Austrians. Hence the Carnival was quickly banned, offensive and threatening as it was to the sensibilities of the new occupiers, and even after the Third Italian War of Independence in 1866 and the earlier establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 it remained dormant until February 1979, when it was resuscitated in a somewhat safer yet adulterated form