The Carnival of Venice
Ah, Venice... a beautiful city built above murky waters, full of bridges, buildings stacked high, and canals packed with boats. There are many mysterious, beautiful, and wonderful things about Venice, but today we’re going to learn about perhaps the most famous of them all: The Carnival of Venice.
The Carnival’s origins vary widely from source to source – some say it began with the Doge’s demand that masks should not be worn after the sun set, others say it was The Circle of Ten who demanded that masks not be worn unless a special celebration was occurring. What is agreed on, though, is that the masks that are iconic of the Carnival of Venice are a part of the Venetian culture and tradition, and have been for centuries.
Venetians were always characterized by a slightly rebellious nature, and a mask glorified all of the freedoms that they desired: putting on a mask meant that they could speak plainly about their opinions of authority, gamble without worry of being arrested for it, and much more. Masks gave one the liberty of being anonymous, of being judged simply by voices and opinions and nothing more. The most prominent use of masks was the idea of social levelling – all genders, ages, and social statuses could get together with no judgement. Nobles and commoners could blend together and enjoy all that Venice had to offer.
At some point in time, however, masks and the costumes people often wore with them were outlawed by the leaders of Venice, except for during Carnival and important public ceremonies. Carnival time quickly became a representation of freedom, abandoning logic and worry, and generally good-willed rule-breaking.
The Carnival is characterized by the costumes and the masks. Many people dress up in vivid dresses and suits; others stick with tradition and wear simple black cloaks and triangular black hats called “tricorno”. The most popular mask in Carnival history is called the Bauta. The Bauta is a plain, white mask with a prominent, angled jaw line that comes to a point. The rest of the face is square. The Bauta’s mouthpiece is tilted upwards to allow the wearer to speak, eat, and drink while still remaining anonymous. The Bauta was significant in that it was frequently worn outside of Carnival time as well, and was one of the first masks created and worn. The volto mask is the most popular mask of today – in contrast to the Bauta it is an ovular mask with smooth lines. When the volto mask was first created, it was never decorated, and was also known as the “larva” or “ghost” mask. Nowadays almost all volto masks are elaborately decorated.
The Carnival boasts a few odd or depressing masks, as well – such as the “moretta” mask or “dark” mask. The Moretta is always worn by women; it is a black mask often worn with a veil, and it is held in place by holding a button or bit from the mask with the front teeth. This forces the wearer to be silent; whether it was meant for mystery or to please male escorts is, again, widely debated. Another odd mask is by far my favourite; the iconic “Medico Della Peste” or “Plague Doctor” mask. The Plague Doctor mask is defined by it’s glass-covered eye holes and long, curved beak. It was first worn by doctors who catered to epidemic plagues. The beak was hollowed out to hold different herbs and straw that were said to aid the doctor in ensuring he did not contract the plague himself. It is traditionally worn with a black cape, white gloves, and a cane or a stick that would’ve been used to move the ill without directly touching them. In today’s carnivals, Plague Doctor masks are seen as more mysterious and powerful masks than anything else, though some where them to symbolise “memento mori”, the Latin idea that we are all mortal and must remember we are destined to die.
The Carnival of Venice is not just about the liberty of being anonymous by hiding behind masks, however. Other traditions include gambling (card games in particular), puppet shows and story-telling, magicians and acrobatic displays, balls and dances held in San Marco Square, plays, and parades both in the canals and in the streets. Traditional iconic characters wander the streets as well, such as a personified Carnival known as “The Mattasin” . There are also bands of people clad in leaves and loose clothes who carry instruments and play jokes, and they go by the name “Omo Salvadego” or “The Savage Men”. Parades with wheel-barrows are carried through the streets as well. An interesting tradition of the Carnival is “Ovi Odoriferi” – “Scented Eggs.” If there is any tradition that can capture the light-hearted rebellion and tricks of The Carnival, it would be this one. Ovi Odoriferi is the tradition of courting women by throwing eggs are their houses. Luckily these are not ordinary chickens’ eggs – the eggs are drained of their original contents and filled with rose water or some other scented water. Merchants would sell them in the streets and men would don their masks and toss eggs at and in front of the houses of women they fancied. At one time this egg-throwing escalated to throwing the scented eggs at the feet of lovely women who passed by and using slingshots to shoot them far distances, even outside of Carnival time – and of course, there were special masks made just for tricksters who did this, too.
The Carnival of Venice’s history may not be well-known, but the spirit of it has been kept pristine over the years and attracts many tourists and locals alike. It takes place for roughly two weeks and always ends on Shrove Tuesday. Whether you are looking for the freedom and wilderness of anonymity, the excitement of tossing eggs at buildings without getting in trouble, or simply the romance of meeting a masked stranger, the Carnival has something for everyone.