Tomorrow, 27 January 2018, is the official start of what is probably the most famous carnival in the world, the Carnevale di Venezia. Soon the calli and campi will be full of people, mostly tourists and mostly French, sporting costumes ranging from the outlandish to the opulent, and posing for photographs evocative of the final century of the Venetian Republic.
People are already warning of overcrowding, but I have to say that compared to July, the city usually isn’t that overcrowded, save for the days on which big events are planned. And I do enjoy seeing the costumes, many of them made by artisans here in Venice, outside the shop windows where they live for the rest of the year.
Carnival is a European tradition which dates back to ancient times. It’s thought to derive from the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia. Nowadays, the word has come to refer to any large costume festival—such as the Notting Hill Carnival in London—and in the USA the word is often used to mean a funfair. But in Europe it means the festival that takes place between Christmas and Lent, the latter being the period in which christians observe austerity for forty days and forty nights.
In Medieval times, Carnival in Europe became a period of misrule, in which people were allowed, unofficially, to get away with pretty much anything. The institutions of church and state were often mocked openly and people overindulged in public. The tradition of wearing masks developed so that people could go about their carnival behaviour incognito, without fear of retribution from the authorities come Lent. In a time when most of the continent was ruled by kings, who could not be removed at elections, this was part of the social contract: the people could let off steam and mock authority for a few weeks a year in return for obedience and public order for the rest of it.
The origins of the word itself are as obscure as the origins of the festival. The most likely explanation, however, is that it derives from the latin phrase carnem levare, ‘taking away meat’. This refers to the fact that during Lent christians fasted and were forbidden from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products in particular.
Carnival is of special importance to me. When I was at University my bachelor’s dissertation was entitled Carnival in Renaissance Venice through the diaries of Marin Sanudo. This is how I first became acquainted with this most fascinating record of Venetian renaissance life.
Over the next few weeks I will be bringing you pictures and reports from this year’s carnival as well as giving you some of the history of the Venetian Carnival, particularly during the medieval and renaissance periods.