Saturday, 26 February 2011

Veneto - it's Carnival time!

It's the first day of the Venetian carnevale today - one of the world's most famous carnivals, renowned for its masked balls and costume parades.  The 2011 event will run until the 8th of March, which is also International Women's Day and the theme this year is Ottocento – Da Senso a Sissi – La città delle donne, 'The 1800's - from Senso to Sissi - City of women'.

The 150th anniversary of Italian reunification will be on the 17th of March this year and the theme of the Venetian Carnevale references the famous novella Senso, by Roman-born writer, Camillo Boito, which is set in the 1860's and deals with the wars against Austria that led to reunification.  It also explores the power of female sexuality and the main female character, an Italian countess called Livia, who falls in love with an Austrian officer called Franz and betrays her homeland with disastrous consequences. 

I think Sissi is a reference to Elisabeth of Bavaria, who became the Empress of Austria and was a 19th century fashion-icon.  I'm still trying to gauge the apparent contradictions involved in Venice's love/hate relationship with Austria and the fact that International women's day will be some kind of fashion show! 

Origins of the Carnevale

Volta mask
 The origins of the word 'carnival' is uncertain.  I've read at least three possible meanings - carne levare 'removing the meat', which is a reference to the fact that carnival is the last big knees-up before Lent and all the fasting in the run up to Easter.  I've also read that it comes from an expression carni vale which means 'farewell to meat', but could also mean something like 'removing your flesh' in reference to the masks and role-playing that the Venetian carnivale is so famous for, ie. you literally become someone else for the period of the carnival.  I think my favourite theory is the one that links the carnival to an Ancient Roman festival celebrating the Egyptian goddess Isis, which was known as Carrus Navalis (ship cart) and involved a ceremony in the sea that marked the beginning of the sailing year.  This resonates with that other great Venetian festival La Sensa when Venice is 'married' to the sea in an elaborate ceremony, although this usually takes place in May. 

The Politics of the Venetian Carnevale

Whatever the meaning, there is definitely a connection with the coming of Lent, although I suspect that this might have been yet another example of how the church latched on to existing pagan festivals and there is something very un-Christian about the gaudy colours, the unrestrained sexual behaviour and the raucous nature of the event!  I hear distant echoes of a Roman bacchanalia.  Originally the Venetian festival lasted almost six months and, in the decadent 18th century, it provided impoverished nobles with an opportunity to 'dress down' and disguise their poverty.  It's also believed that the carnevale was a kind of social safety-valve for Venetian society - the rulers could dress as the ruled and vice versa, men could dress as women and women as men. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Venetian carnevale came to an end with the arrival of Napoleon.  It was revived again in the 1970's and, for a brief moment, enjoyed a genuine sense of being a community-focused street festival, before it became the tourist extravaganza that it is today.  Even in the 18th century, Venice received something like 30,000 visitors during the carnival period.  Nowadays, 30,000 people visit the Venice carnevale every day!  Its value as a tourist draw is not to be underestimated and the list of sponsors for the 2011 carnevale indicates that it's seen as a major commercial opportunity by some of Italy's top companies.

Carnival around the world

Carnival del Pueblo, South London
 The Italians take their carnivals very seriously, but it's a concept which spread from Italy to the rest of the world, so that we have even more famous carnivals in places as far away as New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.  It's much more popular in Catholic countries, therefore it tends to be celebrated in southern Europe and the southern parts of Germany and the Netherlands, as well as the Catholic countries in Eastern Europe.  It's also celebrated widely in the Caribbean and this tradition has resulted in the Notting Hill carnival in London every August which, although it's a truly secular event, it follows the blueprint of carnivals the world over.  I was quite surprised to learn that carnival is also celebrated in parts of India, especially in places like Goa, which has connections to catholic Portugal.  I know how much Indians love festivals!  I think carnival is just one of many. 

Interestingly, I grew up in a catholic country, Ireland, but I've still never really experienced a proper carnival, as we don't celebrate carnival in Ireland.  I guess we make up for it with St Patrick's day on the 17th of March.

Carnevale 2011

Carnevale will be celebrated today in Piazetti San Marco, with the Gran Brindisi or 'grand toast', kicking off at 19:00.  So if you're in Venice today, make sure to get down there and celebrate on behalf of the rest of us!  There's also the Festa delle Marie, a sort of beauty pageant today and the Festa Veneziana and Vollo dell'angelo (Flight of the Angel) tomorrow.  You can find out more about what's happening at the official web page for this year's carnevale (they have some news and pages in English). 

Carnival masks

Il Medico delle Peste
 One of the most famous aspects of the Venice carnevale is the carnival masks.  There are different types, the most famous one being the Bauta which is a plain white mask that covers your face, but leaves your mouth uncovered so you can still eat, drink and be merry!  Eye masks, mostly worn by women, are called Columbine Masks and are very pretty, usually decorated and may have feathers attached.  They are also sold on batons, so you can easily remove the mask from your face, if you need to.  Moretta masks are only for dedicated carnivalists - they are made of a black material which preserves the outline of your face.  They're held on by holding part of the material in your mouth, which I imagine makes eating, speaking and even breathing pretty difficult!  Volta masks are also plain white and non-decorative - they cover the whole face, with no opening for the mouth and they are often attached to elaborate headdresses.  The most striking (and scariest) mask, mostly worn by men, is the Medico delle Peste or 'the Plague Doctor' which is a mask with a long beak, stemming from actual masks worn by doctors during the plague.  They used to keep herbs in the beak of the mask, which helped keep the air that they were breathing pure. 

There is another interesting website on the carnevale where you can find out more about the traditions and masks that the carnevale is so famous for.

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

The photos of the masks at the Venice carnevale were taken by flickruser bazzmann aka Marco Trevisan, who is the CEO of Bazzman SRL, a local media and communication company.  You can see more of Marco's photostream at the following link

The photo of the Carnival del Pueblo, South London is by flickruser snappybex aka Bex Ross, who is a Science Communicator (what is that?) originally from Edinburgh in Scotland.  You can see more of Bex's photos at

Thanks to Bex and Marco for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license!
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