Italy has had strong ties to Catholicism throughout much of its history. Consequently, many aspects of its culture have been influenced by the Church. In Venice, for instance, the celebration of a military victory grew into an annual carnival preceding the holy season of Lent (a period of solemn fasting and prayer).
Although now famous as Italy’s city on the water, Venice was an autonomous republic between the seventh and eighteenth centuries. Because it served as a significant trading port on the Adriatic Sea, the city was frequently forced to defend itself against foreign navies. Following a victorious battle in 1162, the people of Venice celebrated so enthusiastically that they chose to commemorate the event each year. The celebration was gradually lengthened and became less oriented around celebrating a single military success; instead, it shifted to fit the Catholic calendar.
The Lenten season is a somber time, meant for reflection through personal sacrifice. In preparation for Lent, which begins each year on a day known as Ash Wednesday (ashes are used as a sign of penitence), many Catholics enjoy a last day of indulgence before they begin fasting. The Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday has become the occasion of numerous celebrations, including the culmination of the Carnival of Venice (Carnevale di Venezia).
The Carnival developed alongside Venice throughout what remained of its time as an independent city-state. It grew increasingly unique, enjoying the height of the Renaissance and enduring hardships like the Black Plague and numerous foreign attacks. Unfortunately, with its infamous navy greatly reduced, the Venetian Republic fell to Austrian invaders (sent by Napoleon Bonaparte) in 1797. The Carnival and many traditions associated with it were outlawed under the new rule.
In 1979 the Carnival was finally revived by the Italian government, hoping to preserve the rich traditions stemming from Venice’s unique history. Lasting roughly twenty days, the modern Carnival attracts millions of international tourists who, along with the city’s residents, enjoy a wide array of new and old festivities alike.
Venice’s Carnival brought new life to one of the city’s oldest traditions: the wearing of masks. Historically, decorative masks were worn for almost any celebratory occasion. Venetians spent exorbitant amounts on ornate, hand-painted masks of varying styles so that they could conceal their identities before attending social events, including the Carnival. Disguises allowed for unrefined behavior without the fear of ramifications; some acts were so outrageous that they led to laws restricting the wearing of masks in Venice, although they were always permitted during Carnival.
The Bauta was an extremely popular design because it allowed the wearer to speak, eat, and drink without removing the mask. The feminine counterpart to the Bauta is called the Columbina. The Plague Doctor (Medico della peste) design came into style as Venice was recovering from the disease. When the Carnival began to be celebrated again after nearly a third of the city’s residents had been killed by the Plague, the doctor’s mask originally meant to reduce the risk of contamination was taken up as another Carnival-goer’s costume.
Masks remain an important aspect of the modern celebration of the Carnival of Venice, with both new designs and variations of the classics. Music is often played in the city’s streets and many squares, including St. Mark’s (Piazza San Marco). The city features many other forms of entertainment during the Carnival, with live performances, fireworks, and numerous other attractions for visitors. Parades are held throughout the city, and the festival ends with a silent procession of boats along the Grand Canal.