One of the oldest festivals in Europe, the Venice Carnival, dates back to the 13th century and has always been about magic, mystery and colourful spectacle.
It is said to have originated from an important victory of the "Repubblica della Serenissima" (Ancient name of Venice), in the war against Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia, in the year 1162. To celebrate this victory, dances and reunions started to take place in San Marco Square.
The masquerade aspect of Carnival is even older: the Romans celebrated winter with a fertility festival where masks were worn by citizens and slaves alike. Another hypothesis suggests that the word comes from 'Carrus Navalis', which was in times past a Roman festival in honour of Saturn. This was celebrated with horse drawn carriages that used to carry men and women in fancy dresses and masks and singing songs.
When the carnival first begun it was celebrated from December 26 and reached its climax the day before Ash Wednesday.
Venice Carnival is a celebration of art and expression that sees locals and tourists come together during two weeks. Thus Carnival of Venice is considered one of the world’s most famous festivals and fills the whole city with musicians, acrobats, clowns, magicians, puppeteers, beautiful masks, elaborate costumes, and parades. People come from around the world to participate in masked balls and general festivities in the ancient Venetian tradition, and to enjoy theatrical and dance performances, exhibitions and concerts along the canals, squares and the magnificent palaces of the city.
The types of masks and costumes worn today are based on character types drawn from Italian folklore, history, and society:
- Commedia dell'Arte masks are based on traditional characters like satyrs, demons and lawyers to sailors, bakers, butchers Harlequin and Pierrot.
- Fantasy masks are figments of the maskmaker's imagination, although they may be inspired by historical designs.
- Traditional Venetian masks such as the white volto half-mask with nose cover and its variant, the "plague doctor's" mask with its phallic beak. (According to tradition, the beak was intended to protect the wearer from being infected by the plague.)