Let the Good Times Roll! A Brief History of Venetian Carnival

A Venice Carnival costume in 2010

It’s the last day of Carnival, today being Fat Tuesday, and Venice, along with many Carnival-celebrating locations like New Orleans and Rio, have experienced a much-subdued celebration, with more medical masks than sparkly and fun masks, much of it online, and the plague doctor costume perhaps the most appropriate of all. In fact, at least in Venice, this Carnival was celebrated predominately by Venetians (this link has some wonderful photos), which hasn’t been the case in quite a few decades.

Carnival is traditionally a period of feasting and celebrating for Catholics, culminating in Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday/Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the kickoff to somber Lent, a time of fasting, giving up, confessing of sins, and contemplation.

In researching my upcoming novel about Venice, I also discovered there is a Fat Thursday, which is the week before Ash Wednesday. It is a day dedicated to eating. Apparently, “the English writer Marie Corelli mentioned “Giovedi Grasso” in her second novel, Vendetta (1886), as a day when “the fooling and the mumming, the dancing, shrieking, and screaming would be at its height.”

Carnival in Venice may have started in the 12th century, after a military victory that led to spontaneous dancing in Piazza San Marco. It became an official celebration during the Renaissance, until it was banned in 1797 when Napoleon invaded and the Hapsburgs took over. Of course, people being people, the festival didn’t entirely die out, instead going underground until it was revived in 1979, when the Italian government wanted to highlight Venetian culture and history.

I took this photo of Piazza San Marco in 2013

Masks are and have always been the most famous emblem of Carnival, with a mask-makers guild started in 1436. In the past, people of all strata of society took full advantage of wearing masks during Carnival as a way to break down the Republic’s extremely rigid class structures, and for a brief period Carnival lasted a full six months of the year. Many masks as we know them grew out of the era of Commedia dell’arte, a specific Italian dramatic form.

Here’s a plague doctor costume, again from 2013

Hopefully next year, with vaccines and rapid testing in full force, Carnival will be celebrated in its more traditional form in Venice and around the world, especially after what will be two years of what feels like perpetual Lent. As they say in New Orleans, “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!”

Me as a plague doctor – Halloween 2020

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