Celebrating Carnival in Venice goes back to the year 1094, celebrated for the first time on 25 October. The meaning of Carnival for our town is not connected to the usual Latin interpretation of carnem levare which only applies to the Martedì grasso. That was a public holiday in Venice too, officially celebrated during the times of the Serenissima.
What was the purpose of such a – prolonged – or in that case, anticipated – Carnival, and what’s the difference between Carnevale di Venezia and carnival celebrated in neighboring countries? Why has the Venetian Carnival become so famous during the times of the Republic of Venice and is there any resemblance between historical Carnival editions and ours today ?
These are topics that have always fascinated me. When I was doing research for my master thesis at university, rather as a “by-product”, I came across many documents that described the original purpose and concept of Carnival.
I learned that what we know as “Carnival in Venice” today is different from what the Feast was like until 1797, as long as the Serenissima Republic existed.
Today, the purpose of Carnival is to organize a feast, partly recalling the ancient traditions of Venice, promoting Venetian shops, artists and artisans (in particular with this year’s motto of Arti e Mestieri) and to attract clients (= visitors). During the times of the Republic of Venice, the purpose of organizing Carnival was to avoid public unrest in the city of Venice !! It did work – there was no such thing as civil unrest with one exception in 1310 (Bajamonte Tiepolo uprise – read here). In the Venice of the 11th century, it became a custom that people wearing masks were considered “equal”. No class differences were made between nobles and common citizens as long as everyone was behaving well.
For about nine months of the year, Carnival was celebrated, masks and feasts became a daily sight. Venetian lifestyle. From October until mid-June, with brief interruptions for religious festivities, people were allowed to wear masks. A Carnevale tutto vale – in Venice it meant that you were free from any form of inequality.