A sinking city of sea and secrets, Venice is known for its inescapable romance, beauty and mystery. Visitors can find all three at the city’s infamous Carnival celebration.
Now an annual, three-week celebration, the first Carnival of Venice supposedly started in 1162 to celebrate a military victory of La Repubblica della Serenissima, as Venice was originally called. Known as carnevale in Italian, its popularity ebbed and flowed based on the rulers and fashion of the time. After a down-period, the Venice’s Carnival was fully revived in the late 20th century, around 1979, and today is one of the largest and most popular carnival celebrations in the world.
At the start of the 12th century Venetians poured into Piazza San Marco to meet friends, drink and fully celebrate their liberation. One moment each year the strict social and economic classes among the people was broken down and everyone was united as a victorious citizen. The people loved it.
Over time that original festival grew into one of pleasure in general, a celebration of indulgence before the start of Lent. Then, the city returned to a serious, austere focus while devout Catholics awaited the resurrection of Jesus. Lent was, and still is for many celebrating Catholics, a period of fasting, of self-control and alms-giving.
Carnevale, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. Feasts and festivals, fame and fortune, carnival was an excuse to go all out, to do whatever they pleased. Perhaps this is why people began wearing masks – to keep that feeling of freedom. With no true identity, there could be no distinction between the different social classes. Venice’s Carnival was here to stay.
Imagine one time per year when the Disney-esque stories may have actually existed. Behind the cover of masks the poor gondoliere, or gondola driver, was able to be with la principessa, and forbidden love, acts and magic was possible, if only for a short time, for only the city to remember.
Thousands still come to Venice each year to don masks and costumes, put on new characters and identities and parade through the narrow streets and the grand Piazza di San Marco – a personal and public theater.
On a day-trip I explored the throng of known and unknown characters. It was frigid cold but that didn’t dampen the festive atmosphere of intrigue and possibility. In between parades I took the time to escape the crowds and see the less-masked Venice, one not hidden behind monuments, tourists and luxury. In the back alleys toward the tip of the island my friends and I were offered fried pastries and wine by happy, fat Venetians. They were raising money for the local school, and doing so by cooking homemade dishes to give away for a small donation. When one pastry was consumed, another was magically placed in our hands as they spoke incomprehensibly in Veneto, the local dialect.
After drinking wine offered merrily in a Venetian garden we decided to take a ferry in an attempt to escape frostbite and tour the city by night. As the sun went down the city transformed from crowds of regal masked beings to revelrous, swaying friends, screaming to each other across tables of fried seafood and alcohol. The parties grew as fog filled the city with humid, wintery sea air.
Some masks were bright and joyful, opulent in their designs. Others were darker, sending out an ominous warning that nothing lasts forever. We left Venice and its revelers right as the snow began to fall
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