The very first edition of the Carnival of Venice took place when Doge Vitale Falier was in power in 1094, taking form initially as a public celebration to honour the days preceding Lent. Originally it started on the first Sunday of October and went all the way through to Shrove Tuesday, but as a result of the much longer duration had an altogether different atmosphere.
Nowadays the Carnival lasts for about two weeks; this year it started on 11th February and goes on until the 28th, but throughout the year there’s a constant feeling of excitement and anticipation surrounding the celebration.
The original Carnival was an opportunity for people to rid themselves of their daily frustrations and worries, to embrace life and to enjoy the company of their fellow Venetians. Social classes and differences were transcended by the wearing of masks, as were religious, gender and other identities, allowing the disguised to mix anonymously with their peers and operate beyond social barriers.
The Carnival period was particularly embraced by the aristocracy, who were for a time released of their social position and function and permitted to roam freely amongst the people to enjoy life and interact with their neighbours without the constraint of their duties or titles.
The Carnival has survived in one form or another throughout history, at times becoming a destination for artists and celebrities. During the 18th and 19th centuries it fell victim to Franco-Austrian rule (which saw the city pass repeatedly between the two nations) and was forced off the mainland onto the islands of Murano and Burano.
The Carnival as we know it today was resurrected by a consortium of local civic associations in 1979, with the creation of the new, shortened version which still heralds the expression of joy, happiness and abandonment that the original concept did more than a thousand years ago.
In a society where social classes were very well defined and not intended to interact with each other, wearing a mask allowed people to hide any form of identification based on origin, age, gender or religion.
In 17th-century Venice it was forbidden to wear masks outside Carnival time or in sacred places, such as churches.
Originally Venetian masks were made of leather, porcelain or glass and had a symbolic function. Today they are made of hand-painted gesso or papier-mache and decorated with feathers and gems. The main types of masks are the Bauta, Moretta, Gnaga, Medico della Peste, Pantalone, Arlecchino and Colombina.
Bauta: referring to the whole costume rather than the mask, Bauta could be worn by both men and women and consisted of a black, tricorn hat, a veil and a deep-blue or red mantle worn over the shoulders and decorated with frills and fringes.
Moretta: this is a mask traditionally worn by women that’s oval in shape, strapless and has no opening for the mouth – hence why it is sometimes called la servetta muta. Its name derives from the word moro which means black in Venetian.
Medico della Peste: originally an outfit invented by the French physician Charles de Lorme as a protection against the plague, the Medico della Peste consisted of an ankle length black overcoat made from heavy fabric and usually waxed, protective gloves and a bird-like mask with a long beak. It had two small nose holes and acted as a primitive gas mask, filled with pungent herbs and camphor that supposedly purified the plague-ridden air. Venice was hit by several plague outbreaks between 1361 and 1680, the most severe in 1630 which wiped out nearly a third of the population.
Gnaga: a common Venetian mask and part of a costume worn by men disguised as women. The traditional Gnaga outfit includes female clothing and a mask portraying a female cat.
Arlecchino: originally one of the most popular masks of the Commedia del’Arte, Arlecchino is now a central figure in the modern Venetian Carnival.
Enjoyed our introduction to Venice Carnival? See our pick of the best bacari and cicchetti in Venice.