The first records of a carnival party in Venice are from 1162 when the party also served to celebrate the victory of the Republic of Venice over its enemy: the city of Aquileia. Venetians gathered in San Marco Square to dance and celebrate the occasion. Since then, the festival has been repeated in the streets of Venice and it was only later, given the proximity of Carnival, that it incorporated the two events into one. That’s right, the party date always starts 10 days before “Fat Tuesday” (Carnival Tuesday) and the masked parades around the city make the Venice Carnival different from other famous carnivals in Italy. I’ve been to one of them, and it’s truly breathtakingly beautiful. And in 2023 is even more interesting.
The use of masks has a more social reason and comes from a tradition from the 13th century when the Venetians held celebrations and parties (until the beginning of Lent) and hid their identity with masks – simple at first, but gradually becoming luxurious – that prevented people from finding out if underneath the disguise there was someone of lower or upper classes. Without a face, everyone was the same, participating in all kinds of events, generally illicit such as gambling, clandestine affairs, dancing, parties, and even murder.
After centuries of being celebrated, the Carnival of Venice was banned in 1797 by the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, therefore preventing the use of masks as well. In public, right? Because the private parties did not stop happening. For almost two centuries the festival was dormant, being rescued in the 19th century, even if timidly. It was only in 1979 that the Italian Government realized the lucrative and interesting business, of rescuing the city’s tradition, that the party gained the current projection.
Masks have different purposes and names. The Bauta, which covers the entire face, was also used for women to go to the theater, as in past centuries it was not well regarded. It is considered the most traditional, because it allows the user to eat and drink easily, without having to reveal the face. The simplest version of it is the Moretta, which covers the eyes and nose and is tied behind the hair. Of French origin, it was a success among Venetian women for accentuating feminine traits. They say that the Moretta mask first appeared with women who visited convents and needed to be fastened by pressing a button between the teeth, guaranteeing the vow of silence. Modernity has released its use on the streets as well, especially the ease of tying.
The white, unisex masks are Volta, with ghostly aspects that completely cover the face. It is also called a larva mask. usually also worn with a black cape and black tricorn hat. And finally, the most elaborate is the Columbines, which came out of the Commedia dell’arte stages and made them all very beautiful, today decorated with gold, silver, crystal, and feathers, and the frightening ones on the Plague Doctor‘s mask, which are the ones that it has a beak like a bird. These don’t come from Carnival but come from the 17th century, created by the French physician Charles de Lorme and used to protect doctors during the outbreak of the plague, protecting them from airborne diseases. After a while, carnival workers adopted the decorated version as a memento mori, a reminder of their mortality.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, it was thought that the use of masks would be perfect for Carnival, but the deaths and the lack of vaccines suspended the party in 2021 and 2022, being resumed with greater vigor this year. And the big news: the revelry will also take place in the metaverse, the event baptized as Original Sign.
That’s right, the city promotes (it’s already happening!) the digital carnival, the first of many. Even without being physically in Venice, people wear virtual versions of masks and stroll along the canals. There are three different tools: on Instagram, in the form of a special filter; on Ready Player Me, with a costumed version of himself interacting with other revelers and on Rolbox, likewise, with six types of masks: Colombina, Pantalone, Bauta, Medico della Peste and Fenice, as well as the “Original Sign”, created especially for this carnival and created by Massimo Checchetto, artistic director of the Venice Carnival.
The party has been going on since the 4th and runs until the 21st. In terms of the Metaverse, it’s just the beginning. The proposal is to reconstruct the history of Venice digitally, expanding its relevance and visit to more people. Amazing, isn’t it? The schedule can be found here.