Carnevale di Venezia: The Beauty, the Vanity, and the Dream
The first time I saw Venice it was Carnival. Like an aristocratic lady – aware of her opulent beauty – Venice that year too donned her boldest and most luxurious attire, with the intention of leaving an even more indelible memory into whoever was lucky enough to behold her.
I arrived and left the station behind me. I walked right outside and found myself catapulted into another space and time. Nothing seemed to belong to the present time, had it not been for the ferry boat with their engines. What unfolded before me was a painting. Those palaces, oblivious of the modern times, lined up admiring themselves in the waters surrounding and gently splashing against their foundations for the longest time.
I decided to walk. Almost everybody donned a costume while attending to their businesses. Not the architecture, nor the clothing belonged to the present time. What paraded in front of me was that kind of unexpected and never seen scenery that leaves you in awe.
I remember thinking that the Venetians did take their Carnival very much seriously. Everybody walked around in these extravagant costumes with nonchalant elegance. How could you not look elegant and mysterious with those cloaks and those masks? Only some tourists had been caught unprepared. Dusk was coming soon, the fog was soaring from the canals and in the most hidden calli, I heard almost nothing but my own footsteps.
For the longest time, the Carnival in Venice has been a public celebration of fun and merry-making, which many years ago also meant being allowed of letting go of social rules and boundaries. Carnevale (from carnem and vale, Latin for “meat” and “farewell”: a reference to the Church’s ban on eating meat during Lent) was made a public holiday in 1296, with an actual edict by the city Senate.
During this time, unlicensed activities and celebrations were amply permitted and the use of masks much helped in this. Masques and costumes helped blur the lines of social class, gender, or religion, even if only for a brief period. And anybody could dream to be or just pretend to be what they were not.
To be noted, Venetians always had a pence for hiding behind masks. Division of the classes was very harsh, and wearing a mask was the only way to become anonymous, and thus to be indulging in vices, or meeting up with someone of a different caste or religion.
However, at the end 13th century, a law was passed banning masks while gambling. Later on, further laws made it illegal to make masked visits to convents or to wear masks during the many religious festivals. Finally in 1797 – under French rule – festivities slowly died out for almost 200 years, and only in 1979 local authorities decided to relaunch the Carnevale in an attempt to boost tourism during a quiet and damp time of the year.
Today, the Carnival of Venice is a two-week-long much-anticipated, and unique fest; everybody can watch and participate in the many events filling the piazzas and the main canals of the city. As in the past, sumptuous private parties still happen inside Venice’s grand noble palaces. Within the walls of these palaces that many more balls have witnessed, time seems to stand still, and guests can relive a world of ancient splendor.
For those who cannot attend these masquerade balls, it is just an experience to walk around Venice and to St. Mark’s Square: this is the heart of Carnival activities, and you’ll see the most extraordinary costumes. Some will deserve to win the best costume competition; almost all of them will deserve a picture. In fact, if you look around, just waiting to be photographed, masks will pose for you in a scenic spot. Not a lucky or a difficult find. Venice will give one away at almost every turn.
Nicoletta Lucia Paganucci