Maschere Veneziane - Storia
The Venetian Masks

The earliest information regarding the Venice Carnival is to be found in State laws, in private papers or in accounts of festivities, documents which mention it by referring to the Christian interpretation of the Latin term carrus navalis, processional floats in the form of a ship, used in Rome during the purification and exorcism rites which were celebrated in February, the last month of the Roman calendar. In 1296 Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras was declared a holiday by the Senate. In Venice the Carnival embraced quite a long period of time, with a foretaste at the beginning of October to coincide with the opening of the theatres. The Carnival true and proper began on Boxing Day (December 26) when the Government gave permission to wear a mask. The festivities reached their peak on Carnival Thursday and ended the day before Ash Wednesday.
From the middle of the XV to the end of the XVI century the organisation of the Carnival festivities was delegated to the Compagnie di Calze, associations of young nobles distinguished by variously coloured patterned hose.
Carnival meant performances in theatres, in palazzi, in coffee-shops and in small playhouses, but above all it meant a climate of widespread festivity in which ordinary people and nobles, all wearing masks, mingled with dancers and jugglers, with vendors of balsams and cooked apple, with commedia dell'arte actors and snake charmers.

In this climate of festivity the mask was the only possibility, in a society of social barriers, for everyone to be considered equal. The most common disguise in Venice in XVIII century was the bauta which consisted of the larva (a mask which was initially black, then of white oilcloth), of the bauta in the strict sense of the word with lace and veil, of the tricorno (a black three-cornered hat) and of the black tabarro (a silk or woollen cloak).
There were numerous rites and ceremonies initially of pagan origin which were then transformed in the celebration of the power and grandeur of the Serenissima. War could be identified in the Macchina dei Fuochi (Fire Machine), the Venetians' dexterity in storming the walls of Aquileia in the Forze d'Ercole (Human Pyramids), battle in the Ballo della Moresca (Moorish Dance), justice in the Taglio della testa al toro (Decapitating the Bull) and peace in the Volo dell'Angelo (Flight of the Angel).
In 1979 some citizens' associations, backed by the city's enthusiasm and participation, breathed back life into a virtually neglected tradition. Since then, firstly the Municipal Authorities and then the Carnival Committee have organised and promoted the Carnival events which take place in Venice and on the mainland during the ten days preceding Ash Wednesday.
The other culminating moments include the water procession, with festively decorated boats and masked rowers, which concludes with fireworks against the evocative backdrop of the Cannaregio Canal, the flight of the dove which marks the beginning of Carnival, and the final grand ball on Shrove Tuesday in St. Mark's Square.

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