Though it probably had much earlier roots, the Carnival in Venice was supposedly first recorded in 1296, when the Senate of the Republic issued an edict declaring the day before Lent as a public holiday. Much as in other cities, Medieval and Renaissance Venetians appear to have celebrated Carnival in several guises. On the one hand, it was an official festival, for the most part staged in Piazza San Marco, the Piazzetta, in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace, or out in the Bacino of San Marco – the basin adjoining the Molo. These events, especially during and after the sixteenth century, celebrated the founding and governing myths of the state – its tranquility, durability, prosperity, fairness, and piety. Some of these official festivities were violent – oxen and pigs were let loose in the Palace courtyard and then slaughtered – but they still conveyed the overarching theme of civic unity. On the other hand, a good deal of popular energy during Carnival was directed into group rivalries, between parishes or between large geographic factions that divided the city. These could be extremely violent at times, involving bull fights, the running of oxen or pigs down the streets, or mass brawls with sticks or fists, often on bridges.
By the seventeenth century the Carnival of Venice, like that of Rome, had become a regular attraction for tourists from Northern Europe – especially the so-called Grand Tourists: young aristocratic men who spent a year or more visiting the cultural attractions of Italy. Between 1600 to 1840 these visitors wrote literally hundreds of accounts of their visits to Italy, and many had something to say about the Carnival of Venice. It was claimed by some seventeenth-century guidebooks that upwards of 30,000 visitors would come to the city during the week before Ash Wednesday, along with around 10,000 prostitutes. Reading between the lines of what they wrote, it would seem that Grand Tourists came to the Carnival of Venice to (in ascending order of interest) dress in costume, see the opera, gamble in the state-licensed ridotti, and frequent the prostitutes. By the mid-eighteenth century it was also claimed (by those same Grand Tourists) that their contribution to the Venetian economy was so great that the Senate and Council of Ten could no longer afford to ban or restrict the festivities without risk of bankruptcy.
A case could be made that for most of the last two hundred years of the Venetian Republic, as the city’s hospitality infrastructure continually expanded, Carnival had become fundamentally a tourist event and no longer the sort of spontaneous, transgressive popular display that is associated today with places like Rio or Trinidad. When the Republic fell in 1797, Carnival was soon banned, and it remained forbidden throughout the Austrian occupation (1815-66). With reunification, however, an attempt was made to bring Carnival back, though according to the local newspaper (the Gazzetta di Venezia) it had lost much of its original participatory character, with the festivities attracting more spectators than celebrants. Much of the problem may have been the lack of tourist interest. For a few generations these officially sponsored events sputtered along, until the event was outlawed under those Fascist laws that forbade wearing a mask in public. For the next half century, the Carnival of Venice was a dress-up event for children’s parties.
The Carnival was reincarnated in early February 1979, when, according to the Gazzettino di Venezia (8 February 1979), some parents and civic leaders in the city decided to sponsor a more formal festival to substitute for the parties of teenagers, which many thought were getting too rowdy. This first iteration lasted only four days, and even many Venetians who were there at the time appear to have forgotten it was held that year. Most people remember instead the Carnival of next year, which some say was the only truly “Venetian” one ever held. Thanks to good weather and lots of planning, there were celebrations, miming, and music all over the city, including an enormous ball held in Piazza San Marco on Fat Tuesday—and it was a ball almost entirely composed of locals. The festive displays and encounters were also almost exclusively put on by Venetians, operating with the motto, : Ma varda che poco che basta: Look how little you need! Then the tourists began to come.
Venetian Carnival Masks
Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetian carnival; traditionally people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen's Day, December 26) at the start of the carnival season and midnight of Shrove Tuesday. They have always been around Venice. As masks were also allowed during Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas, people could spend a large proportion of the year in disguise. Maskmakers (mascherari) enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild.
Venetian masks can be made in leather or with the original papier-mâché technique. The original masks were rather simple in design and decoration and often had a symbolic and practical function. Nowadays, most of them are made with the application of gesso and gold leaf and are all hand-painted using natural feathers and gems to decorate.
Bauta is a "mask which covers the whole face, with a stubborn chin line, no mouth, and lots of gilding". One may find masks sold as Bautas that cover only the upper part of the face from the forehead to the nose and upper cheeks, thereby concealing identity but enabling the wearer to talk and eat or drink easily. It tends to be the main type of mask worn during the Carnival. It was used also on many other occasions as a device for hiding the wearer's identity and social status. It would permit the wearer to act more freely in cases where he or she wanted to interact with other members of the society outside the bounds of identity and everyday convention. It was thus useful for a variety of purposes, some of them illicit or criminal, others just personal, such as romantic encounters.
The moretta is an oval mask of black velvet that was usually worn by women visiting convents. It was invented in France and rapidly became popular in Venice as it brought out the beauty of feminine features. The mask was finished off with a veil, and was secured in place by a small bit in the wearer's mouth.
The larva, also called the volto mask, is mainly white, and typically Venetian. It is worn with a tricorn and cloak. It is thought the word larva comes from the Latin meaning "mask" or "ghost". Like the bauta, the shape of the mask allowed the bearer to breathe and drink easily, and so there was no need to take it off, thus preserving anonymity. These masks were made of fine wax cloth and so were much lighter and were not irritating to wear making them ideal for eating, dancing and flirting.
The mascherari, or mask-makers had their own statute dated 10 April 1436. They belonged to the fringe of painters and were helped in their task by sign-painters who drew faces onto plaster in a range of different shapes and paying extreme attention to detail.
2010 Carnival Programme
SHOW DI INAUGURAZIONE DEL CARNEVALE
Saturday 6 February, hour: 21.00
Show in the square, with famous artist, to open the 2010 Carnival under the mark of entertainment and culture.
LA TRADIZIONE - IL VOLO DELL’ANGELO
Sunday 7 February, hour: 12.00
LA TRADIZIONE - LA FESTA DELLE MARIE
Sunday 7 February, hour: 15 (From San Pietro di Castello)
LA TRADIZIONE - LE RIEVOCAZIONI STORICHE
Sunday 7, hour: 15.00 / Sunday 14 February, hour: 13.00
DRAG QUEEN BEAUTY PAGEANT
Friday 12 February, hour: 21.00, Piazza San Marco
The new competition on a European level. Jury by The Compagnia de La Calza “I antichi”.
CONCORSO DELLA MASCHERA PIU’ BELLA 2010
From Thursday 11 to Sunday 14 February, hour: 15.00
The authentic touch of the Carnival tradition. An international jury, presided by Oscar Prize Gabriella Pescucci and the Compagnia de la Calza “I Antichi”.
SERATE DI TANGO IN PIAZZA SAN MARCO
Saturday 13, Sunday 14 and Monday 15, hour: 21.00
LA COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE
From Thursday 11 to Sunday 14, Piazzetta S.Marco
MARTEDI’ GRASSO IN PIAZZA SAN MARCO
Tuesday 16 February, hour: 20.00
Celebration with music on the square to end the 2010 Carnival
LA FESTA VENEZIANA
Sunday 7 February, hour: 11.00, Rio di Cannaregio
In collaboration with A.E.P.E. and Coordinamento delle Remiere
IL CAMPO DEL GUSTO – CAMPO SAN GEREMIA
From Thursday 11 to Sunday 14 february, hour: 10.00 - 19.00
In partnership with the Regione Veneto and in collaboration with l’Unione Cuochi Veneto
CARNEVALE AL BUIO, CORDERIE DELL’ARSENALE
From Saturday 6 to Martedì 16 february, hour: 11.00 – 20.00
Edition with new itinerary and surprises. In collaboration with l’Istituto dei Ciechi di Milano
IL BURLESQUE AL CARNEVALE DI VENEZIA 2010
From Saturday 6 to Saturday 13 february
IL VOLO DELL’ASINO – PIAZZA FERRETTO
Sunday 14 february, hour: 12.00
SENSATION OPENING PARTY - TERRAFERMA
Saturday 6 february, from the 22.00