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March 4, 2014

Short History of the Venetian Carnevale


Condensed from “A Short History of Venetian Carnival Masks”

By Michel Tieuli for

The word carnival (Italian: carnevale) possibly comes from the Latin carnem levare or carnellevarium, which means to take away or remove meat.  A more probable etymology for the word may be derived from the Latin carne + vale, meaning “farewell to meat”.  Carnevale was and is associated with the pre-Lentin festivals practiced on and around Shrove Tuesday, which is the last day before the Roman Catholic Lent season.

Carnevale is first mentioned in documented sources in 1092, but the actual history of the Venetian Carnevale is thought to have originated from an annual celebration of Doge Vitale Michieli 11”s victory over another city state’s patriarch in 1162.  The first documented source mentioning the use of masks in Venice can be found as far back as the 13th century.  The document describes the practice of masked men throwing scented eggs at ladies and its prohibition by the council (Venetian Laws, 1268, May).

Traditional Venetian Characters and their Costumes

  • The Bauta (La Bauta) Originally a “Bogeyman” like character used by adults to get children to behave.  “If you do not behave the Bau-Bau will come and take you away”

The disguise uses a shiney white mask, a black cape, veil or mantle, and a three corned black hat.  The character is used by both men and women.

  • The Moretta—(Servetta Mutta) is a dumb maid servant.  She wears a black velvet mask held in place by a bit in the wearers teeth

These two disguises were widely used during the 18th century to conceal the identity of ladies and gentlemen in the gambling houses of Venice.  Many genre paintings of the crowded parlors and coffee houses exist.  (find works by Pietrs (falca Longhi and Giantonio Guardi, and insert here)

  • Comedia Dell”arte (Comedy of professional artists)  This extemporaneous group used the same characters, represented by their costumes and masks to present their skits.  Some of the most common or popular characters are listed below:

    • Harlequin-typically in a costume made up of colorful diamond shapes. (find Antione Watteau portrait—also Tintoreto’s son’s)

    • Columbine – maid servant counterpart

    • The Doctor-

    • Pagliacci—The clown

    • Pantelone- A Venetian Merchant

    • Pierino- Same as French Pierrot

    • Pulcinello- a crooked nosed hunchback—the model for the English Punch

    • Ruffiana- Busy-body mother or townsperson—buts into the lives of the lovers

    • Scaramuccia-(Scaramouche) Roguish swordsman/adventurer

    • Zanni—Threadbare old servant from another City-State, but associated with Venice

Carnevale Festivities and Games

From the 14th century, various staged conflicts were presented for the entertainment of locals as well as visiting dignitaries.  These were of festival proportion and pitted the districts of Venice against one another in mock combat.  Sometimes these were pretend fist fights, sometimes they were quite elaborate with props such as “The Machine of the Flames”, or the decapitating of a bull followed by the “Flight of the Angel or Turk”.  During the 15th and 16th centuries festivities were organized by associations of young men- or Compagne di Calze.  There were 23 different groups each with a fanciful name.  Their variously multi-colored stockings distinguished the groups, one from another, much like New Orleans Mardi Gras, but without Gondolas.

During the 18th century Venetians took to wearing masks for 6 months out of the year as the original religious significance of Carnevale diminished.  One could disappear into ones alter self, especially when being recognized might be detrimental to ones purpose for being out and about.  Much mischief could be made – innocent as well as sinister!  When Venice fell to the Austrian Empire and Napoleon in 1797, these festivities came to an end.  Law and order was restored to Venice, and it became the still romantic and ethereal “Drawing Room” of Europe, but Carnevale festivities did not return.  Mussolini and the Fascists brought stricter laws and greater order during the 1930s.

The Celebrations were never forgotten entirely, and about 1979, a group of artisans revived the masks and costumes.  Since then the annual “Carnevale of Venice” has become one of the most renowned international festivals celebrated by tourists and Venetians alike.  Many events are celebrated each year during the week before lent, but the most spectacular is the masked ball at the Teatro La Fenice (The Feniche Theater or Opera House).