According to the Venice tourist office the city’s world famous carnevale (carnival) opens today (January 31st), but if you ask a local, they’ll tell you it started straight after Epiphany on the 6th January. The first signs of the fun to come were the baking trays piled high with sugary doughnuts, or fritelle, and fragile galani biscuits that appeared in cake shops nearly 3 weeks ago. Shop windows are full of fun fantasy masks and costume shops are brimming with corsets, full-skirts, Rennaissance dress coats and wigs of every colour and size. And behind the scenes Venetians, including my friend Daniela, have been frenetically preparing their outfits, sewing metres of material, stitching on sequins, designing and making their masks and choosing their wigs. So as we raise the curtain on the celebrations tonight, what is carnevale all about and what we can expect over the next couple of weeks?
Background and history of Carnevale
The origins of the Italian carnival are thought to be linked, as so many traditions are, to the Ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, themselves partly based on Greek and Oriental celebrations. These festivities focused on partying, overturning social regulations and temporarily broke down class barriers allowing slaves to dine at their masters’ tables.
Later, the traditions of carnevale were firmly linked into the Catholic church and the lead up to Lent and Easter. Traditionally during Lent the faithful lived a frugal, pious life fasting and refraining from eating rich foods such as meat, dairy, fat and sugar. So before the fasting could begin all forbidden foods would have to be disposed of and so was born carnevale, meaning “eliminate or farewell to meat” in Latin, to have one last big debauched blow out party.
Some of the best-known carnival traditions such as masquerade balls, parades and outrageous carnal behaviour were first recorded in medieval Italy with Venice’s carnevale being the most famous. Venice’s carnival, however, wasn’t purely related to Lent but had started after a victory over Aquileia, north of the city, in 1162. Her citizens started to dance in St Mark’s Square and the festival became a regular event. During the 17th and 18th centuries the carnival became extremely famous attracting people seeking pleasure and escape from their day to day lives. Masked masquerade balls thrived and the debauchery lasted for months but all that stopped in 1797 when Napoleon finally conquered Venice and the lagoon republic fell. Masks were strictly forbidden after that date until the 19th century when they re-surfaced at private parties.
Today carnival has spread throughout the Catholic world and beyond. Festivities in Europe include Cologne’s Fastnacht or Karneval where people wear masks to rid the evil spirits of winter from the city. Meanwhile Nice’s Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday” signifiying Shrove Tuesday which is the last day before Lent, sees people dressed in masks and big-headed caricature costumes to lighten the atmosphere.
New Orleans, in the United States, has a popular Mardi Gras celebrating different cultures with parties, parades, jazz music and the wearing of colourful beads. And, of course, there is the enormous 4-day long Mardi Gras carnival of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil when Brazilians say farewell to the pleasures of the flesh in the days before Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent.
Modern-day Venice Carnevale
Here in Venice the original carnival was abolished when the Republic fell to the French but celebrations were restored in 1979 and given a boost as the city tried to attract tourists. Today it is now easily the most visited holiday of the Venetian calendar bringing a couple of million of visitors to the city every year. And there’s plenty to enjoy.
The first thing you’ll notice is the food as bakeries across the city fill the air with the sweet smell of carnevale doughnuts. Called frittelle (singular fritella meaning fritter), these beautiful doughy delights are stuffed with raisins and candied fruits. But the best thing about the frittelle is that they ooze with cream and calories! Fillings include chocolate cream, zabaglione or confectioners custard. Delightfully delicious!!!
Galani biscuits are also made during the run up to Lent and are stacked high on supermarket shelves. These thin biscuit crisps are made out of a light dough, fried and dusted with icing sugar. Light as wafers they shatter into soft sugary splinters that melt in the mouth and are known as angel wings by some families.
Carnival is also an opportunity for the children of Venice to have fun. The weekends after Epiphany are confetti strewn as the kids run round the city’s campi with bags bursting with multicoloured tissue coriandoli. Its an indication of the fun to come. And then on the official opening night of carnival the children dress up as Superman, Hans Solo, the princess from Frozen, tigers and countless other favourites. The pavements of the Rio di Cannaregio are covered with confetti and streamers as the children give carnival a colourful kick-start.
And finally, 3 weeks after Epiphany, carnival officially starts with a musical spectacular of acrobats and jugglers, dancers and gymnasts – the “Festa Veneziana”.
This year’s theme is food and gluttony as the Rio di Cannaregio is filled with floats depicting flavours, tastes and the pleasures of good wine and good food.
Billed as the world’s most gluttonous and delicious festival things certainly got off to a tasty start tonight with water and air borne displays bringing the joys of flavor, food and fun alive.
The Festa Veneziana continues tomorrow morning, Sunday February 1st, with a water parade from the Punta della Dogana to the Rio di Cannaregio. Local food, drink and specialities will also be available along the Cannaregio canal to keep the party rolling throughout the day
So I hope this has whetted your appetite for the upcoming 18 days of festivities and that you’re hungry for more as I’ll be blogging throughout the festivities to bring you lots of carnival flavours, frolics and fun! Leave a comment to let me know what your favourite part of the festivities is and make sure you pop back to check up on the menu of carnival celebrations. And in the meantime, I hope you’ve got your mask ready and your costume finished as we have some partying to do!
Useful information – updated for 2018!!
Carnevale 2018 in Venice runs from Saturday 27th January to Tuesday 13th February 2015. (Dates will differ from year to year depending on when Lent and Easter fall so always check calendars before you plan travel.)
The official website is: http://www.carnevale.venezia.it/en
Venice Carnival 2018: Program of the main events
The main dates to look out for are –
Saturday 27th January 2018 – 6pm Opening of the Carnival with a water show along the Rio of Cannaregio and an encore at 8pm
Sunday 28th January 2018 – 11am Boat procession along the Grand Canal from Punta della Dogana to the Rio di Cannaregio. Organised by the Associazioni Remiere di Voga alla Veneta in partnership with Associazione Esercenti Pubblici Esercizi (AEPE) and Coordinamento Associazioni Remiere di Voga alla Veneta.
Saturday 3rd February 2018 – Carnival Parade of Marie to St Mark’s Square
Sunday 4th February 2018 – 12pm Flight of the Angel in St Mark’s Square
Thursday 8th February 2018 – Ballad of the Masks with the beheading of the bull, St Mark’s Square
Tuesday 13th February 2018 – 5pm Flight of the Lion, proclamation of the Mary of Carnival.
In addition, the carnival program includes the “Most beautiful mask competition” and touring shows in St Mark’s Square during the day and musical events at the Arsenale every night from Saturday 7th to Tuesday 17th February.
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