Venice Carnival is one of many around the world, but the origins of Carnival itself are unclear.
Understanding the origins of the Carnival of Venice isn’t an easy task. Indeed, no scholar succeeded in firmly establishing the history of the most iconic festival of the city of Venice.
The confusion around the origins of Carnival is not limited to the sole Carnival of Venice but encompasses the origin of the tradition of Carnival itself.
Indeed, if Venice might be one of the most famous cities to celebrate Carnival, it is far from being the only one.
We might not know exactly its origins, but Carnival sure is a Christian tradition... isn't it?
Many places around the world, have celebrated and continue to celebrate what is a festive season occurring before the Christian season of Lent, culminating in the month of February, or early March, and manifesting itself in public celebrations, parades, masks, and costumes wearing and excesses of all types.
If it is easy to believe that Carnival is a celebration of Christian origins, nothing is less sure. It is thought by certain scholars that the origin of Carnival could be in pre-Christian religions, in pagan celebrations possibly dating back to times as far as the ones of the Ancient Rome or Greece and celebrating the end of the winter, the return of the fertile season of spring.
It is believed that the time of Carnevale had an important function for the community: it would be a feast during which all the leftovers of meat “carne” would be finished before they rot. Carnevale would be the last opportunity for everybody to eat well and enough before a time of privation preceding the return of the fertile season.
Later in history, the Church starting to mind the pagan festival would have decided to appropriate it rather than suppressing it; a phenomenon already observed for another major Christian festival: Christmas.
Nevertheless, something everybody agrees on is that Carnival is a time of suspension of norms, a time of excess, and there are no doubts about the fact that this is something for which, later on, Venice would make itself famous for.
So as you can see, the History of Venice’s Carnival really is unclear: many different events are thought to possibly be associated with the origins of the festival.
The history of Venice Carnival is better explained looking at its highlights and their own distinctive history
To understand the celebrations in Venice, it’s worth looking at Carnival not as one single festival but rather a succession of overlapping events and celebrations, adding up with time, and having all their own history and origins.
Carnevale was found mentioned for the first time in the documents of a Doge – Doge Vitale Faliero in 1092, as a form of public entertainment. It was only in 1296 that an official document from the Senate of the Serenissima declared the Carnival of Venice a public festival, and made the day before Lent, Fat Tuesday, a holiday.
At that time and for many centuries, Carnevale was lasting for the 6 weeks between the 25th of December and Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. During this period, the leftovers of rich food would have to be finished and the last day to do so would be the above mentioned Fat Tuesday.
Besides Fat Tuesday, another highlight of the Venetian carnival is ‘Giovedi Grasso’, Fat Thursday. It’s believed that in Venice, this day, was dedicated to the memory of the victory, in 1162, of Doge Vitale Michiel II over the Patriarch of Aquileia, who had conquered Grado, in a move clearly aiming at bringing Venice under German subjugation. Venice’s Doge who reacted strongly, sent a fleet to Grado which he surrounded and captured.
The Patriarch, 12 rebel landlords, seven hundred soldiers, and his cannons were taken to Venice. On demand of the Pope, who wanted to reestablish peace, the men were released and the cannons returned, in exchange of an annual tribute: every year, Aquileia would have to send a bull, twelve pigs and 12 loaves of bread to Venice.
The animals, representing the Patriarch and the 12 rebel lords, would be received as war prisoners and in Saint Mark’s square, in a public ceremony commemorating the victory. The ceremony would end with the animals being slaughtered and shared with the population, on the day of fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent.
This tradition, as well as the one of fat Tuesday, persisted as a part of the Venetian Carnival, for centuries to come.
Wild parties and the anonymity of masks and costumes made Venice Carnival the perfect outlet for the Venetian population
We explained above that the Venetian festival was found mentioned for the first time in documents dating back to the XIth century. Property of the Doge of that time, the documents speak of Carnevale as a form of public entertainment.
Indeed, the festival in Venice is thought to be born from the need of the Republic, to give to the population, and especially its most modest members,
a controlled period of time dedicated entirely to entertainment, fun, and parties.
This type of practice, already common in the ancient Rome, was characterized by an abundance of musical parties and frenetic balls all around the city of Venice, where both citizens and foreigners would meet, mix and celebrate, forgetting about business, politics and everything else.
The participants would wear masks and costumes, creating a climate of anonymity ideal to remove social disparities and facilitate the public criticism and parody of the authorities and aristocracy, as it was allowed – only – during the time of Carnival. More than allowed, such behaviors were actually largely tolerated and even encouraged for being the perfect opportunity to see tensions and discontentments vanish. Indeed, in a Republic setting strict rules enforcing the public order and cultural values, this release of tensions was quite healthful.
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