The story of the Carnival of Venice and the Venetian Carnival Balls
Almost thousand years of Carnival in Venice
Carnival is associated with the ten days leading up to Lent and thus seems basically religious. The history of the Carnival of Venice tells us a different story though. The Republic of Venice was a major financial and maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance as well as a very important centre of art and commerce (especially silk, grain, and spices). In 1094 Doge Vitale Falier granted Venetian Citizens the right to celebrate carnival in the run-up to Lent, the 40 days of fasting before Easter. Venice was still a municipality then. Also cities like Florence, Rome and Naples celebrated carnival. Carnival was characterized by “the freedom to eat and drink gargantuan amounts, to wear a mask, to insult your neighbours, to pelt them with eggs, lemons, oranges, etc., and to sing songs full of political or sexual innuendos.” (Bertrand). Often the festivities were combined with a commemoration of a milestone in local history. That is probably why many sources say that the Venice Carnival started in 1162 as a celebration of the Venice Republic's victory over the Patriarch or Aquileia, leading to dancing and drinking on Piazza San Marco.
What is certain, is that the festivities were combined with unwanted behaviour. In 1268 a ban on egg throwing was issued in 1268, and in 1339 a law against misdemeanours committed by people with masks was installed. In 1458 law forbade men from masking as women to enter female monasteries. Cruelty toward animals also seems to have been quite common.
Renaissance noblemen take over the organization
In the 15th and 16th century the Carnival of Venice was focused on the political and economic successes. In this period, the Venetian Renaissance, highlights of Venetian architecture, like Saint Marc’s Basilica and many of the palazzo’s were built. It is also the time of artists like Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. The Compagnie della Calza, a group of young noblemen, organized theatrical performances, private balls, serenades, regatta’s, fireworks and processions on the water to welcome their distinguished guests. The events that are organized now, resemble those old traditions. The popular thrills did not entirely vanish. There was a bull’s execution in front of the Ducal Palace, there were Hercules’s Strength human pyramids, a moresca (a dance imitating the battle between Moors or Turks and Christians) and the “Flight of the Angel,” was introduced by a Turkish tightrope walker in 1558. This show was performed until 1759 when an accident led to the acrobat being replaced with a dove. During the Renaissance the Carnival of Venice grew out to a very important event. In the modern day carnival there are may references to this period.
The role of the traditional carnival masks
Halfway the 17th century the mask got a more central role throughout the year. Masks allowed people to do things that were not openly possible. Because who wore a mask, played a role, he or she could not be arrested. People sometimes cross dressed: women appear in men’s clothes, and men in women’s skirts. The carnival of Venice to many visitors meant a holiday from morality, where disguise made all things possible. “Cover the face, alter the voice, and anything could happen. Naturally the most thrilling possibilities were sexual.”, says Johnson in his book ‘Venice Incognito’.
The Caccie dei tori, or bull hunts, were very important events during carnival. They were usually organized by Venetian aristocrats. In a tumultuous parade bulls were led from the slaughterhouse near the Jewish ghetto to one of the squares. Pulling on ropes tied to the horns, young ‘tiratori’ steered the animals through the alleys. Soon people started ‘helping’ the tiratori to make the bulls as angry as possible. Aggressive dogs were let loose among the animals. Enormous crowds watched from the richly decorated palazzi. Most wore masks. The hunts ended with the death of the bull by beheading. Sometimes as much as 200 bulls were involved and even bears were set loose. It was said that the ritual gave Venetians the vigour to challenge their foes.
In the 18th century the Carnival of Venice had turned into an event that was attended by aristocrats from all over Europe. Venice had lost influence and the Ottoman Empire and Spain had become the leading nations in the Mediterranean. Venice tried to stay attractive by fostering the Carnival, which by then was extremely luxurious and sophisticated. The Venetian state organized the event. This continued until carnival was prohibited by the French and Austrian authorities in 1797. A year earlier Doge Ludovico Manin surrendered to Napoleon Bonaparte and the Major Council declared the end of the republic. France and Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, agreeing to share all the territory of the ancient republic. The metropolitan part of Venice became an Austrian territory. The street events disappeared, as did the Bauta, the most common of masks. From then on the Carnival was celebrated in the privacy of the private ballrooms, usually in the form of an re-enactment of the carnival in the Renaissance era.
A combination of imagination and arts
Though the Carnival in Venice is commercially seen very important, a combination of imagination and arts let to the rebirth of the public festivities. It has not been invented purely for tourists.
It took almost two decades for the Carnival of Venice as a public event to be reborn. In the 1950s, a rich and famous art collector, Carlos de Beistigui asked his friends Salvador Dali, Christian Dior and Emilio Terry to design a ball at the Palazzo Labia based on the times of Casanova. They reintroduced the acrobats on stilts wearing the Bauta, the human pyramids and Harlequins. This was the start for a series of successful artistic events that eventually led up to the idea to make Carnival into a public event again, like a rowing regatta in 1974, choreographer Maurice Béjart’s 1975 performance at the Venice International Festival of the dance, a new concept for the festival of the Unità with theater disseminated all over the city’s squares; and the success of Fellini’s Casanova in 1976 and Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo for the Biennale di Venezia in 1979.
Nowadays people from all over the world, spend months on designing and making the most elaborous outfit. Their inspiration may be in the renaissance or 19th century or in fantasy/cosplay, but the imagination they display and details of the costumes are unbelievable. The modern day Carnevale di Venezia is an artistic experience, enjoyed by everyone involved.