Venice is one of the most beautiful, historically rich and romantic cities of the world. Every year in February the city holds the ‘Carnevale di Venezia’ (the Carnival of Venice), a month long festival that was resurrected in 1979 after almost two centuries of being forgotten, although its origins go back nearly 1000 years. It started, as with so many of these events, as a celebration of a victory but came to official recognition during the Renaissance and then became exceptionally popular during the 1600 and 1700s during the height of Venice’s power and prominence.
Venice has been a centre of trade and commerce for many centuries, it’s influence can be felt across the Mediterranean and the rest of the world. The city has always be one of beauty with it’s canals, bridges and architecture. It is host to the birthplace of great art and music. Shakespeare set a number of his plays in Venice, as at the time of writing Venice was the cosmopolitan capital that London was aspiring to be.
The highlight of the Carnevale is the series of masquerade balls, these glitzy and glamourous affairs are an excuse to dress up, hide behind a mask and pretend. The history of masks in Venice is as long as the Carnevale itself. It is a deep seated tradition that permeates the fabric of canals themselves. Venice has always had it’s demimonde side and is known for its Libertines such as Casanova. The ‘City of Masks’ was a point on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe during the Renaissance that was famous, or infamous, for its gambling houses and beautiful courtesans. The government turned a blind eye to these questionable activities and encouraged tourism. Along with its powerful trade networks, Venice was a melting pot of fun and commerce, the perfect place for a carnival then and now.
Masks were not only for Carnival but were used throughout the year, indeed so much so that there were strict regulations for the wearing of these masks outside the carnival period. You could meet your lover, gamble, go to the theatre or just have fun without the fear of discovery. The Mascareri, or mask makers, were in great demand, as much as painters, and had their own guild. The masks were simple affairs made of leather, porcelain or glass. There are many different types of mask and they all have their own names and traditional shapes. One of the most famous is the Bauta; the mask itself is simple white with a large nose and prominent chin, which let the wearer eat, drink and talk. The mask was worn with a black or red cape with hood and a black tricorn hat.
What is it about a mask and ball that tugs at the romantic strings of hearts and minds? The masquerade enchants and entices us, infused with a mysterious and yet sensuous quality that appeals to both sexes. Masks and masquerades are linked with romance of all types; the pure young love of Romeo and Juliet, the intrigue masquerades of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels, and the risque masques of the film ‘Eyes Wide Shut’.
A mask gives us a sense of freedom, to perhaps behave, say and act in a manor that we would not normally do, giving us that confidence to be bold. To dance and be free, to woo with abandon, to make merry with mischief and a place where you are not suppose to know the identity of the person opposite you.
This sense of freedom from the strict rules of the time, means that romance abounds and that could not be more true than in ‘The Floating City”, from the Renaissance to this day.
Venice is still a tourist mecca for people from around the world; it’s elegance, multi-faceted past and grand edifices give it round the year appeal, but the ‘Carnevale di Venezia’ brings renaissance bewitchment to the bridges and gondolas.
The modern festival itself now runs for about a month and ends on Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, the day before the start of Lent. The Carnevale is full of music, art, parades, fireworks, theatre and more. Along with Rio and New Orleans, Venice is the global focus of the carnival season.
Put on your mask, join the masquerade and let the romance and music flow, let the carnival spirit permeate you.