When you think about Venice, Italy, a city founded more than 1,500 years ago, what comes to mind with regard to the main attractions which draw visitors year round? Is it the fact that that the city is situated on 117 different islands with over 150 canals crisscrossing it? Is it the city’s 400 bridges, its moderate weather, its small traffic-free streets, its magnificent churches and palaces, its lively squares or its interesting shops? Perhaps it is all of these things. But one thing that captures my imagination in Venice is the elaborate pre-Lent Carnival celebrations which take place during the ten days leading up to Shrove Tuesday!
Rain or shine the celebrations go on where revelers don traditional masks and costumes and parade around the city, enjoying live music in the main squares.
The word “Carnival” is derived from the Latin word “carne vale” meaning “farewell meat.” The tradition started in 1162 after the defeat of Ulrico Patriarch of Aquileia during which time a bull and 12 pigs were slaughtered in the Paizza San Marco on Tuesday the day before Ash Wednesday to commemorate the victory. The celebration later evolved into the wearing of masks to hide any form of identity between the social classes.
The original masks were quite simple in design and decoration and often had a symbolic and practical function. Today, the Carnival masks are made using gesso and gold leaf and they are all hand-painted using natural feathers and gems for decoration.
The event was outlawed entirely in 1797 and the use of masks strictly forbidden. However, in 1979 it was revived with the aid of the Italian government and today it has become a symbol of Venice recognized worldwide. As a result, Carnival draws over 3 million spectators to the city each year. One of the most coveted events of Carnival is the la maschera più bella contest (“the most beautiful mask contest”) which takes place on the last weekend of the Carnival and is judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers. The colors and the variety of modern and traditional costumes and masks are truly amazing.
So, if you are not weary of crowds the Venetian Carnival is an event not to be missed. Further, it is free!