Venetian Carnival: A Place to Go Undercover

The word carnival (Italian: carnevale) possibly comes from the Latin carnem levare or carnelevarium, which means to take away or remove meat. A more probable etymology for the word carnevale may be derived from the Latin carne + vale, meaning “farewell to meat”. Developed around the Roman Catholic festival of Lent (Quaresima – derived from the Latin term Quadragesima, or “the forty days”), carnevale was associated with the pre-Lenten festivals practiced on and around Martedí Grasso (Shrove Tuesday) or Mardi Gras (trans. Fat Tuesday).

Traditionally, the forty days in Lent would mark a season of sorrowful reflection, fasting and abstinence from fruit, eggs, meat and dairy products. Although carnevale is first mentioned in documented sources in 1092 during the Dogate of Vitale Falier, the history of Venetian carnival is thought to have originated from an annual celebration of Doge Vitale Michieli II’s victory over Ulrich II of Treven, Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162.

Il Ridotto painting by pietro longhi in Collezione Banco Ambrosiano Veneto venice Big

Ulrich II was taken prisoner together with 12 vassals who were allied to the feudal Friulians in a rebellion against the Republic’s (Italian: Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia) control over the territory of Grado. Ulrich was eventually released on the condition that he pay an annual tribute to Venice in the form of 12 loaves of bread, 12 pigs and 1 bull.

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During this period a tradition began of slaughtering a bull (representing Ulrich) and 12 pigs in the Piazza di San Marco around Shrove Thursday (Veneziano: Zioba Grasso) to commemorate the victory.

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The first documented sources, mentioning the use of masks in Venice can be found as far back as the 13th century. The document describes the the practice of masked men throwing scented eggs at ladies and its prohibition by the council (Venetian Laws, 1268 May).

Exhibition of a Rhinoceros, by Pietro Longhi

From an official perspective, these masks allowed people to the Republic of Venice to express their opinions on important matters anonymously. People, seeking to benefit from their anonymity, and knowing that they would be spared the repercussions if they weren’t recognized, began to behave more lavishly and without fear. Venice was a busy city that saw many travelers and business visitors daily.

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People started using venetian masks to offer sexual favors, and to indulge in gambling during the day and night. The masks gave homosexuals a chance to meet other homosexuals and indulge in their desires without fearing the Church. The Catholic Church has always condemned homosexuality but it was difficult to catch and punish the perpetrators owing to the anonymity the masks gave them. Women could now wear revealing clothing and cover their faces with elaborate masks.

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Rome knew about the activities in the Venetian Republic but since substantial financial deposits continued to be made from Venice, Rome chose to ignore the situation. Finally, the Catholic Church decided to act and outlawed the Venetian mask masquerades several times, especially on holy days.

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In modern times, Venetian masks are used during carnivals. Traditionally, the mask’s base is sculpted from clay. Masks are also made from papier-mâché, which are then layered over with plaster for firmness. They are designed using bright colors, sequins, feathers and a host of other embellishments.

The Bauta (La Bauta)

The original elements of the Bauta disguise comprises of the typically shining white face-shaped mask (“larva” or “volto”), a black cape or veil of silk, a cloak (tabarro) or mantle, and a three-cornered (“tricorne”) hat. The Bauta was worn by both Venetian ladies and gentlemen alike.

Venetian Masks La Bauta by fabula docet

The Moretta

Le Moretta or Servetta Muta (trans: dumb maid-servant) is a black velvet, oval shaped mask that was worn by Venetian ladies. Covering all but the outer edge of the face, the Moretta was secured to the wearer by way of a small bit that was held in place by the teeth.

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By the 18th centaury the use of the Bauta and Moretta masks to conceal the identity of ladies and gentlemen in the gambling houses (Il Ridotti) of Venice had become commonplace.

Commedia Dell’arte

Commedia Dell’arte, also known as Extemporal Comedy, was a form of improvisational theatre which began in the 16th century and continued to be widely popular up until the 18th century. Some of main characters in Commedia Dell’arte are:

  • Arlecchino (French: Arlequin, English: Harlequin) typically depicted in multicoloured costume comprised of diamond shaped patterns.
  • Colombina (French: Columbine), maid-servant counterpart of Arlecchino.
  • Pulcinella (related to the Italian: pulcino or chick) is a crooked-nosed.

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  • Pantalone or Pantalone dei Bisognosi, (French: Pantalon, English: Pantaloon). He is a Venetian Merchant.
  • Scaramuccia (French: Scaramouche) a roguish adventurer and swordsman who replaced Il Capitano in later troupes.

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  • Pagliaccio (the Clown)
  • La Ruffiana (Old Woman) is usually a mother or gossipy townswoman who intrudes into the lives of the Lovers.

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