It is winter in Venice – La Serenissima. The jostling crowds have gone, the canals have lost most of their pungency and the pigeons have reclaimed St Mark’s Square. A calm has descended on this most enigmatic of cities.
Yet, for a week every February, the calm is shattered. For this is the week of the Venice Carnival, when the chilly quiet is banished. An old tradition revived in the 1970s, the Carnival is an excuse to dress up in all manner of finery, and party. Extravagantly robed and masked figures – some jovial, some slightly sinister, all mysterious – glide down alleyways and across squares, elevating the passeggiata (that very Mediterranean stroll, where the main aim is not to see, but to be seen) to an art form.
It is believed the original Carnival was a much bigger and rowdier affair, complete with bear baiting and puppet shows, bull fights and secret assignations in gondolas. According to one Francis Misson who visited Venice in 1688,
Vice and virtue were never so well counterfeited. There is everywhere a general motion and confusion, as if the world were turn’d fools in an instant.
In its heyday, the Venice Carnival lasted from Christmas until Shrove Tuesday (about eight weeks). Events officially began when a government official gave permission for people of all ranks to wear masks. For what was a highly stratified and rigid society, it was an unusually egalitarian holiday, as masks were worn by everyone: noblemen and beggars, courtesans and priests, and no one – in theory anyway – was any the wiser.
As for the costumes, the more flamboyant they were, the better. The crowds in St Mark’s Square routinely comprised Cossacks and Barbary pirates, Chinese mandarins and characters from the commedia dell’arte.
The celebrations traditionally came to a close in the presence of the Doge, the ruler of Venice. Amid fireworks and cheering, an acrobat slid down a rope from the top of the Campanile (bell-tower) and presented a posy to the Doge, and the fun was over for another year. As the last firework hissed into the Grand Canal, the crowd walked home, no doubt exhausted by all the frivolity.
The Venice Carnival Resurrected
By the mid-19th century, interest in the Carnival declined. Venice was then under Austrian rule, and Venetians were reluctant to rejoice while the city was in the grip of a foreign power. Venice’s days as ‘Mistress of the Seas’ were over and, before long, the Carnival was consigned to history.
But history is never completely dead in Venice. After a series of mini-Carnivals, the municipal authorities took control and the festivities have since gone from strength to strength, even if they haven’t quite reached the excesses of bygone years. Today, the city’s population almost doubles during the Carnival and the authorities have been known to close the causeway when the city becomes too crowded.
If you fancy experiencing it for yourself, check out the Carnival of Venice website. I might see you there!