Venice carnival 2018

Venice Carnival - Discover the Venetian tradition on your next school trip
January 31, 2018

This infamous carnival which started in 1162, supposedly as a celebration for the Serenissima Repubblica, is held annually in the city of Venice in Veneto, Italy. At its beginning, revellers would gather in the Piazza San Marco and dance through the day and night. The celebration quickly developed into a city-wide annual celebration in which Venetians would wear elaborate masks to conceal their identity so that they could gamble and flirt without consequence, and would hold parties from the end of Christmas up to the beginning of Lent. The carnival was then banned for a couple of centuries, but was brought back in 1970 by the Italian government in an attempt to protect Venetian culture and heritage.

Venice Canal

The most striking, and recognisable tradition surrounding the carnival is the use of ornate masks, which people would use to hide their identity when celebrating carnival. This has now solidified itself in Venetian culture and the event would not be the same without them. Masks can be made out of leather, porcelain or glass, with glass being the traditional technique. You can visit the glass blowing museum ‘Museo del Vetro’ on the small island of Murano, a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland of Venice, here you can learn more about how mascherari would manipulate the glass in order to create these elaborate masks. Walking around Venice, meandering around the little streets, there are endless amounts of small shops, filled to the rafters with these beautiful designs, however nowadays they are mostly made of gesso and decorated with gold leaf, feathers and gems rather than glass – although they are still as beautiful as they were.  

There are a few different types of masks which are traditional to carnival and Venetian culture. The most recognisable being the ‘Medico della peste’ masks (plague doctors), which are white, with long beaks and round eye sockets, these were originally used by doctors during the plague, the beak stuffed with sweet smelling plants to keep away the foul smell of the disease that medics thought spread the illness. Nowadays however, carnival has adopted the image and these masks are now decorated in patterns and colours and can be seen worn by many throughout the celebration.  Another recognisable mask is the ‘Bauta’, a traditional mask which distorts facial features, and usually depicts a large nose, no mouth and a protruding chin, which allows the wearer to eat, drink and talk without needing to take off the mask. In the 18th century these were used by male citizens during ballots and meetings in order to guarantee their anonymity, similar to modern democracy. Another iconic mask is the ‘Volto’. This white mask covers the entire face and unlike the ‘Bauta’ depicts simple facial features, and extends quite far back up to the hairline. In modern times the ‘Volto’ mask is often gilded and decorated, however traditionally it was a stark white, which in turn earned its alternative Latin name ‘Larva’ (ghost). A final example of the traditional Venetian masks is the ‘Servetta Muta’ (mute servant woman), this bizarre design was worn by women in the 18th century and is a completely black, velvet mask, only just covering the face. This mask has large eye holes and no mouth opening for the wearer to speak through, in addition, in order to keep the wearer muta (silent), it must be held to the face by biting down on a button inside the mask – a strange, and sexist design to say the least! There are quite a few other designs which are worn throughout carnival, all with their own histories and modern twists, and these masks have inspired writers and film directors throughout the years, and earning them worldwide fame.  

Nowadays, tourists flock to Venice, both from inside Italy and further afield to see the carnival in action. Actors dress in elaborate 18th century costumes, flowing capes and staffs, hiding behind their chosen style of mask. Street performers litter the streets and vendors sell their trinkets and tiny masked models to the public. In Piazza San Marco, the council erect a large stage, here musicians and comedians play to the audience who wander in and out throughout the day. Venice during carnival is an incredible experience, the mixture of the winding bridges and canals of Venice with the 18th century costumed people in masks truly transports you back to the past, in an unnerving and fascinating way. It is an experience that must be added to everyone’s bucket list!