Article and Photography by Jose Morales
Venice, Italy – Few cities in the world spark feelings of romanticism as strongly as Venice. This archipelago paradise, comprised of 118 mini-islands, sits in the shallow waters of the Venetian Lagoon in the north of Italy. The “Floating City” or “City of Canals” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site distinguished by its beautiful architecture and close relationship with the creative arts. At the core of this relationship is one of Venice’s most renowned traditions: Carnevale di Venezia.
The Carnival of Venice traces its origins to the year 1162 when the people of the city gathered in San Marco Square to celebrate their victory against the Patriarch of Aquileia. Thereafter, the festival continued, becoming official during the Renaissance period that started in the 14th century, and where Venice played a significant role in the history of art, symphonic music and opera.
During the 18th century, the carnival became world-famous due to its lavish baroque costumes, and intricate masks. Though the use of masks in Venice dated back to earlier centuries, the practice re-emerged during this period as the symbol of the carnival. People were allowed to wear masks from Ascension (October 5) to Shrove Tuesday (in either February or March), which marked the end of the carnival season.
Travelers from all over the world were seduced by the Carnevale di Venezia and its celebration of hedonism, the masks shielding their wearer’s identity during promiscuous and decadent activities. Under the concealment of identity, Venice -a city enjoying a high standard of living during this period- became even more self-indulgent. With a large number of travelers coming through the city, sexual promiscuity became rampant and acceptable. Gambling became common, fashion more daring, and homosexuality, though not acceptable in public, was embraced in private. Carnival also became a way to escape the calamities of the times. Due to the demand for masks, mask makers held a distinctive position in society, protected by their own laws, and with their own guild.
In 1797, the festival and the use of masks were outlawed by the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II. The carnival lost its popularity. Though it reappeared briefly during the 19th century in private events, it was not until 1979 when the Italian government officially re-established it due to its cultural and historical significance. This resulted not only in the revival of the carnival’s romanticism but also in a boom for the tourism industry in Venice. Today, approximately 3 million people visit Venice for carnival.
The art of creating these Italian masks is an elaborate one. There are as many as 18 different types of masks, some traditional to Carnevale and others to the Commedia dell’Arte (Art of Comedy), and which represent characters, professions, and the folklore of different Italian cities. Traditionally, the masks are made using gesso and gold leaf and then are hand-painted. Gems, stones, feathers, and other applications can be used for decoration. These masks, which preserve the traditional craftsmanship of Venice, are understandably higher in price when compared to the ones massed produced in the United States, and China.
The Best Mask Contest takes place daily during the Carnival of Venice. Winners are chosen twice a day in St. Mark’s Square based on the creativity of their costumes. On the final day of the contest, a jury of experts chooses two winners based on best-masked costume, and best-masked costume per the theme of the carnival during that year.
A grand event not to be missed is the Festa Veneziana which is held over a two-day period on the Cannaregio Canal and the Grand Canal, respectively. This is the opening event to the carnival, where dozens of unique boats glide down the canal featuring aquatic performances, music, and dance.
Roaming the small alleys of Venice during carnival is not only a magical and romantic experience but also a festive one. Though a far cry from the decadent behaviors of the past, the streets become alive at night time with multiple events being held throughout the city. Stages are raised in the plazas with DJ’s blasting their music away under the open sky, and hole-in-the-wall little wine bars popping up everywhere.
Other popular events during this time include grand masquerade balls. Though many of the activities during Carnevale are free, the balls are extravaganzas that most likely will require a fee for you to attend. If looking to hold your own private event, the organizers of the Venice Carnival can help you to arrange a night never to forget.
Venice is an extraordinary city – vibrant with culture, art, and history. During Carnevale di Venezia, Venice’s magical charm becomes even more memorable. For an adventure you will never forget, the Carnival of Venice is an event not to be missed, and one that every cultural connoisseur, or those aspiring to be, should experience and be part of at least once in their lives. – GM
Dedicated to the memory of our beloved friend Faizal Coto. You told us that visiting Venice was a dream come true for you, and we are so blessed to have shared that moment with you. We miss you. We will always have you in our hearts.
GUILD MAGAZINE - THE TRAVEL ISSUE