Long before the advent of Cirque de Soleil with its gorgeous costumes, drama, and artistry, the pageantry and spectacle of the Venice Carnival dazzled and captivated generations with its masquerades, magicians, and acrobats.
Today’s travellers can still enjoy the beauty of the Venice Carnival when they book their Italy vacation packages.
The roots of the Venice Carnival stretch back in time to the days when Venezia was the Republica della Serenissima (Most Serene Republic). At this time, about 1162, there was a victory of a patriarch against Ulrico and citizens took to San Marco Square to celebrate with dances and merrymaking. Magicians and other talented buskers joined in, some seeing the opportunity to make a bit of money from appreciative audiences.
The tradition of Carnival continued for centuries, commencing on the feast day for Santo Stefano (St. Stephen) on December 26th and running until midnight of Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras in New Orleans – the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent – the 40-day period of fasting and penance before Easter). While the Venice Carnival nearly disappeared after the 18th Century, it was revived with great success in 1979 and attracts millions to Venice each year.
Masks have always been closely linked to the Venice Carnival, with its official start kicked off with a day of masked Venetians promenading for what became known as Liston Delle Maschere. People decked in their finery with elegant masks would walk the strip of Campo Santo Stefano to see and be seen. Historically masks were also worn from early October through to Christmas, allowing people to hide their identities with masks made from leather, porcelain or glass. The mascherari (maskmakers) were respected artisans with their own guild. A highlight of the modern Venice Carnival is the contest for La Maschera più bella (the best mask) during the last week of the festival.
Over the span of time some traditions, like the running of bulls through the narrow streets of Venice and once even a rhinoceros, have faded. Others, like the entertaining charlatans, puppet shows, musicians, and acrobats in San Marco Square continue. And the beautiful masks and costumes still abound, enchanting and mesmerizing all who venture to see the Venice Carnival – as well as permitting the merrymakers to revel with anonymity.
Don’t forget to bring your camera as you encounter classic masked figures—men with white masks and three-cornered black hats, or women with black Moretta masks and long gowns—and a cast of characters from Commedia dell’Arte such as Pantalone, Il Capitano, and Pulcinella.
Venice is a beautiful city to explore on foot at any time of year, but during the Venice Carnival it will leave you spellbound.