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The carnival in Venice was first recorded in 1268. The subversive nature of the festival is reflected in the many laws created over the centuries in Italy attempting to restrict celebrations and often banning the wearing of masks.
Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetian carnival; traditionally people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day, December 22) at the start of the carnival season and midnight of Shrove Tuesday. As masks were also allowed during Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas, people could spend a large proportion of the year in disguise. Mask makers (mascareri) enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild.
In 1797 Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio. The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798 and it fell into a decline which brought carnival celebrations to a halt for many years. It was not until a modern mask shop was founded in the 1970s that a revival of old traditions began.
Today, February in Italy means that just about every city on the Peninsula is invaded with masks, confetti, colors and lights that make for a very exciting and unique atmosphere: it’s Carnival! It is a party with ancient roots, and today has become a folkloristic rite in which traditions and fun work together to bring enormous life to this unique celebration.