Spring Vibes and a Historical Carnival Cake

Finalmente primavera! Venice looked like this on the first morning of spring! We are all enjoying bright lights, so different from the pale sun barely illuminating Venice during the first few weeks of January. So this is what you would have seen today, arriving at Stazione Santa Lucia. And there’s the smell of new grass in the air when you step down from the train station towards the vaporetto stops. In sunny parts, the cherry trees are getting ready to bloom!

And further along, traveling down the Grand Canal towards the Piazza on the vaporetto, I could make out those special lights on the water, ushering in spring. This is the season when Venice sparkles all over, especially in the early morning. Pink sun rays enveloped the vaporetto, and the reflections of the sun were everywhere, on the buildings and on the water. If there’s one day I recommend you come see Venice, it’s today, the first day of March!

Those touches of purple, pink and blue have become the new colors of Carnival, now developing its own personality. Yes, it doesn’t happen often that the first weekend of March is also the last weekend of Carnival. It’s been a lush Carnival edition so far. Ancient stories were acted out, such as the eternal quarrel between Castellani e Nicolotti. Piazza San Marco is now a colorful stage, hosting most events of the new Venice Carnival calendar, which developed over the past eight years or so. Of course, the Grandi Caffé always contribute to shaping the new personality of Carnival by making it a culinary feast as well, smelling of hot chocolate and colorful, luxurious cakes.

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Direttamente dal palco del Carnevale, lo spettacolo dei Signori della Notte ⛓ Rievoca le antiche lotte tra #Nicolotti e #Castellani condotto da una avvincente narrazione e da un combattimento tra le due fazioni ⚔️ A cura di ASD Mos Maiorum Direct from the stage, the show The Lords of the Night ⛓ It reminisce ancient battles between Nicolotti and Castellani, led by an exciting narration and fight ⚔️ By ASD Mos Maiorum #carnevalevenezia2019 #blamethemoon #missionecarnevale19 #tuttacolpadellaluna #moon #luna #missionecarnevale19 #venicecarnival2019 #venicecarnival #carnevaledivenezia #carnevalevenezia #venezia #venice #venise #venedig #carnevale #carnival #veneziaunica #igervenezia #veneziagram

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In attesa di entrare a Palazzo per l'anteprima del "Lunatic Dinner Ball" ci siamo imbattuti nelle videoproiezioni “Blame The Moon” che stanno illuminando Ca' Vendramin Calergi… Lungo il Canal Grande lo spettacolo è per tutti. Grazie a @drawlight_net Info e prenotazioni Dinner&Ball: bit.ly/LunaticDinnerBall . 🇬🇧 Waiting to gain entry to the "Lunatic Dinner Ball" we stumbled upon the projection “Blame The Moon” that are lighting CA ' Vendramin Calergi Palace… Along the grand canal the show is for everyone. #carnevalevenezia2019 #carnevalevenezia #venicecarnival #carnevale #tuttacolpadellaluna #blamethemoon #venezia #venice #venise #visitvenice #visitveneto #videomapping #show #dinnershow #lunaticdinner #light #lights

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My personal favorite of Carnival 2019 so far is i giochi di luce, the soft diffuse lights illuminating palaces during balls, enveloping them in the colors of late winter. But then, what is Carnival in Venice in the first place? A feast, or a tradition, or just a few haphazardly combined events organized to draw even more people to Venice?

The first Carnival Feast was celebrated during the weeks following 12 October 1094, after the reliquaries of Saint Marks, lost during a restoration of the basilica, had been found. The Doge invited the people to come and celebrate on the Piazza, wearing festive clothes, and even masks. Now, masks weren’t invented here, but Venice knew their functions and traditions, which had been passed on from the Ancient Greek tragedies via Byzantium to Venice. So yes, people were wearing masks in Venice when staging plays during Carnival, mostly spontaneously. This first Carnival feast dragged on and lasted until June of the following year.

Celebrating such an extended feast was unusual in Europe during the Middle Ages, and it drew many people to Venice. No country would stage plays for six months forever, though, and even less a republic run by nobles turned merchants, working instead of celebrating. Still, during October and June, Venetians were allowed to wear masks without feasts taking place all the time. Wearing a mask, everyone could be taken for a rich noble, so this left much space to act out stories and dreams come true.

This means that until 1379, there were only two!! feasts taking place during Carnival in Venice The first was the oldest official feast, La Festa delle Marie, celebrated on Candelora Day (2 February) since the year 973 AD, which means it is older than Carnival. La Festa delle Marie was only celebrated until 1379, and interrupted when Venice was at war with Genoa. The feast was never taken up afterwards, and so the only real day which can be classified as feast was Mardi Gras, which became an official holiday of the Republic.

So this “new” Carnival we are witnessing today, taken up only in 1979, combines elements of the past, and at the same time, develops a new personality. For a decade or so, Venetians loved their Carnival. In the late 1990s, many started leaving the city which became a stage for tourists showing off fancy costumes. The big change happened when the Venetians finally returned and took part in their Carnival, four years ago.

Did you notice that I describe the ancient Carnival as period during which people were allowed to wear masks, and the modern Carnival as a chain of events / feasts, lasting for two and a half weeks. This is the main difference between the ancient Carnival (1064 – 1797) and modern Carnival (1979 to date) here in Venice. Others include:

  • The new Carnival recalls the history of Venice in plays and events, like the battles between Castellani and Nicolotti.
  • The new Carnival organizes exhibitions on the Piazza, shows, and plays. In the past, trade fairs took place, during which real “deals” were made. After all, this was a Merchant Republic, and everything else came second.
  • The new Carnival is colorful, perhaps developing a personality of its own, verging towards purple, white and blue. It doesn’t take into account the color codes of the past, though. And those were very strict.
  • During the ancient Carnival, masks looked completely different.
  • During the ancient Carnival, fashion looked completely different.
  • And finally, the food of the past was not what you would probably expect. There’s one common trait, though. Frittelles were Carnival favorites in the past as well. The Carnival cake, though, eaten on Martedì Grasso, has been forgotten, though. It was the favorite winter cake of the merchants, and below, we are showing you what it looked like.

In short, the original Carnival, for which Venice was well-known for more than 700 years, was very different from what we can see now. The most striking difference is food, fashion and the fact that the ancient color code does not apply anymore.

And now, we are showing the forgotten Venetian Carnival cake of the past! It’s existence has been largely forgotten, while we do know about the frittelles. This is the most luxurious sweet treat Venice had to offer, a rose-saffron cake. During winter, when many herbs were not available, Venetians used home-made blossom syrups to flavor their cakes. Luxurious cakes included rose syrup often, for roses (and lilies!!) were the official flowers of Venice. You can see both flowers in many coats of arms of Venetian families. Both blossoms, roses and lilies, were also used in the kitchen, roses during all seasons, and lilies in spring and summer.

So here it is, the Venetian rose-saffron cake, torta di mele allo zafferano e sciroppo alle rose, which is not only delicious but healthy! Into the cake goes everything available in Venice in late winter. So this is a surprisingly fluffy and flat almond cake, flavored with saffron and a spice mix, and covered with rose syrup frosting. It was the most precious cake served in Venice during the year, eaten on Mardi Gras. And as there were still apples or pears present in the pantries, these would also go into the cake. Of course, there were so many kinds of frittelles during Carnival in the past, also flavored with rose syrup and saffron, a luxurious variant often eaten in Venice during the long winter Carnival period.

Now, which is the event that brought the Venetians back to home to participate in, and enjoy, Carnival again? It captured the hearts of all Venetians, even those who still leave the city to avoid the crowds. You can find this event, and the complete story of Carnival, its fashion, food, recipes and lifestyle, in our new e-book, A Guide to Carnival in Venice (60 pages).

Click here to see the e-guide

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2 Comments

  1. Beautiful photos.

    Posted 3.1.19 Reply
    • Iris wrote:

      Thank you! Nice to meet you!

      Posted 3.1.19 Reply

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