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Although, generally speaking, the history of the carnival in western societies has been lost in the abyss of time, the first witnesses that connect the celebration of this over-the-top festival with Venice dates back to the Middle Ages, specifically in the 13th century.
However, despite the fact that the Carnival was of great importance in the city for several centuries, the vitality it has in modern times is of a much more recent kind, since, after the disappearance of the Republic in 1797, the custom of celebrating fell into oblivion. The interest in the tradition was reborn in the 1980s, when some enthusiasts, encouraged by the appearance of new manufacturers of masks, decided to give the festival a strong boost.
Today, it is one of Venice’s great tourist attractions, since many visitors are really keen to see the colourful and lavish period costumes and the mysterious masks that cover the faces of the disguised people who wander around the canals and narrow streets.
In former times, the Venetian Carnival was extremely long, since the first masks began to be seen around December and the celebrations officially ended on Ash Wednesday. In fact, in some years the authorities had given permission to start wearing masks as early as the 1st of October. Today, the festival, which lasts ten days, normally takes place between the end of January and the beginning of February.
For the authorities of the Republic, the carnival was a wonderful way to release tensions between the different social classes, since for a specific period of time the underprivileged could play, thanks to the disguises, in an upside-down world full of revelry and licentiousness.
In fact, the revelry reached such proportions that laws had to be passed to control the behaviour of the citizens specifically during these days. Perhaps the greatest symbol of this decadent and dissolute Venice is the figure from the 18th-century, Giacomo Casanova.
As well as the marvellous dances that were held in the different campi and with the spontaneous parties that started up, one of the main activities of the Venetian Carnival in the 17th and 18th centuries was gambling, which took place in the Ridotto, a public casino that was opened exclusively during this period. Inside, the masked gamblers happily spent their ducats, which ended up in the State coffers.
As for the masks, manufactured in papier maché, they take on many different forms and are decorated with feathers, bright colours and even gold leaf. Some models, such as the bauta, the larva or the moretta, have taken on the status of classics, but they are mixed with fantastic creations and other historical fancy dress.
In this way, characters from the Commedia dell’Arte such as Colombine and Harlequin mix during these days with key figures from the Venetian landscape of another period, such as the doctor of the plague. His mask, with a pointed nose that looks like a bird’s beak, is one of the most distinctive elements of the Carnival.
Today, the programme of activities is full of theatrical works, balls, exhibitions and concerts, which guarantee a full package of entertainment for the traveller who is lucky enough to visit the city on these dates.
Gran Canal (1A)
Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (22)
Palazzo Ducale (6)
Ponte dei Suspiri (10)
Santa Maria della Salute (42)
Basilica de San Giovanni e Paolo (36)
Columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore (8)
Palazzo Grassi (26)
Ponte dell’Accademia (3)
Torre dell’Orologio (9)
Basilica di San Marco (5)
Ca’Vendramin Calergi (19)
Fondaco dei Turchi (17)
Palazzo Labia (16)
Ponte di Rialto (2)
Chiesa dei Gesuiti (33)
Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo (41)
Statue of Colleoni (38)
Calle del Fumo (30)
Chiesa del Redentore (47)
I Gesuati (43)
Malibran Theatre (35)
Palazzo Mocenigo (25)
Calle Larga XXII Marzo (14)
Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto (31)
La Giudecca (45)
Mercato di Rialto (18)
Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (39)