News & Events

CULTURE: È Carnevale! Jan. 27 – Feb. 13

Date 01.25.2018

Carnevale, is Venice’s answer to Mardi Gras and Fasching. For eight days before Lent each winter, tourists flood the city for an orgy of pageants, commedia dell’arte, concerts, balls, and masked self-display until Shrove Tuesday signals an end to the party.

Carnevale isn’t just a Venetian tradition; similar festivities occur throughout much of the Roman Catholic world, including other cities in Italy. The term “carnevale” comes from the Latin for “farewell to meat” and suggests a good-bye party for the steaks and stews that Catholics traditionally gave up during the weeks of fasting before Easter. The masquerade aspect of Carnival is even older: the Romans celebrated winter with a fertility festival where masks were worn by citizens and slaves alike.

In its glory days of the 1700s, the Carnevale di Venezia began on December 26 and lasted until Ash Wednesday, with mask-wearing and other unofficial activities continuing well into the spring. The nonstop partying, gambling, and general irresponsibility reflected the decline of the Venetian Republic, which had begun to lose wealth and power with the rise of Dutch and British trade in the 1600s. After Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice in 1797, the Republic was finished and so were the desultory remnants of Carnival.

Carnevale was a mere historical curiosity by the time William Dean Howells, U.S. consul to Venice in Abraham Lincoln’s administration, wrote Venetian Life in 1865. He describes a Shrovetide ceremony dating back to 1162 that “was very popular and continued a long time, though I believe not till the fall of the Republic.” More recent books, such as Time-Life’s The Great Cities: Venice (1976) and Blue Guide: Northern Italy (1978) don’t even mention Carnival.

In 1979, a group of foreign and other non-Venetian organizers attempted to revive Carnevale in the same spirit that provokes American historical societies to organize mock battles on Independence Day or to stage charity balls with Victorian costumes and themes. The modern-day merchants of Venice quickly recognized the economic potential of this Phoenix-like Carnevale, and a new tourist season was born.