The origins of the Venice Carnival can be found when the unpopular Roman Leader of Aquileia, a province in Northern Italy, was overthrown and the crowds held an impromptu celebration in the San Marco square. This very quickly became an annual event to celebrate freedom from oppression and rank with the poor mixing with the very rich, all masked and dressed to disguise themselves.
This revelry was supported by the Doge (chief magistrate of the Republic of Venice). He also commissioned a Church to the Madonna to be built asking her for the eradication of the plague which decimated 30% of the population during the 22 outbreaks between 1361 and 1528.
These plagues weakened the expanding economy stimulated by Venice becoming a centre of trade. However the merchant ships coming into the port of Venice also carried the rats and fleas that caused the outbreaks.
The plague also killed the Doge, though his work was carried on by the next Doge, and he is celebrated with a Venice Carnival ball named after him – The Doges ball (Il Ballo del Doge)
Under different rulers and regimes and with the impact of the Bubonic plague and wars including the Napoleonic, the Venice Carnival disappeared. When Venice Carnival reappeared it was mostly as family events held in the gardens of private houses as a celebration before the start of Lent and abstinence.
Italy decided to restart the Venice Carnival officially as a cultural festival in 1979 to bring in tourism and interest to Italy.
The famous Venice masked Balls, Il Ballo del Doge, the Mascheranda Ball and the Tiepolo Ball did not take long to follow.
Now if you say Venice Carnival to people they immediately think of Venice Masked Balls, and the importance of a wonderful Venice Carnival mask. Masks have been a long tradition in Italy since the 13th century and were worn everyday made in leather, glass, or porcelain.
The citizens wore masks when voting so that nobody knew who was voting. Traditionally the main mask they wore was the Batu mask with a large nose and protruding forehead, extended chin and no mouthpiece worn with black cloaks and tricorn hats ensuring almost total anonymity when voting (women were not allowed to vote).
During the Venice Carnival now you will see a half mask version of this with just the large protruding beak and high eyebrows, although it is not as popular.
Half masks or Colombina’s as they are called, is a more modern invention, decorated with sequins, ribbons and feathers to enhance a woman’s good looks!
Nowadays of course the Mascheranda Ball is a famous celebration of this face ornament; Mascheranda meaning masked. So the Mascheranda Ball is the ultimate Venice masked ball.
The Medico della Peste was traditionally worn by medics who believed it protected against the plague and all the other vicious diseases that were around in those days. This mask has a hollow beak with round eyeholes covered with discs made of crystal; the hollow beak would be stuffed with medicinal herbs or fragrant flowers. It is very strange in appearance, not at all designed for good looks!
The most challenging masks of all must have been the black velvet, circular masks with only eye holes, women kept this mask in place by biting on a button sewn on the inside!
The traditional full face white masks which are made from porcelain are very heavy and restricting. Whilst some are now made in plastic you still cannot eat or drink with them on, although there are versions that have hinged jaws to allow this!
Some of the masks were designed for stage performances which were very popular in those historical times with depictions of monkeys with large bumps or “horns” on their foreheads and made in black.
The traditional masks are a full face mask, a white mask, or the clowns mask that the young students used to wear when playing pranks so as to be unidentifiable. The mask makers are very respected people and have their own statue dating back to 1436, and their own guild.
Their work enabled people to wear disguises for perhaps 6 months of the year! The only exception when you were not allowed to wear masks was on holy days and when visiting convents – veiled women only were allowed.
As part of the current Venice Carnival there are now competitions to decide the best new mask design, with many different versions that you will see on a Venice Carnival Trip.
However in this modern day masks are only worn for special occasions and during Venice Carnival such as at the Venice Masked balls with the party Mascheranda ball being perhaps the most famous. But there is also the Tiepolo Ball (the traditional dancing ball), and Il Ballo del Doge which attracts many celebrities all in disguise so no one can recognise them.
Venice Carnival is a celebratory mixture of freedom from oppression, better medical know how and a throwing away of identity and rank – a marvellous and mischievous mix of culture, fun and entertainment with the chance to dress up and be masked to provide anonymity.