by Louisa Loring
By now Venice’s annual Carnival festival is no mystery; its name alone evokes images of colorful masks and crowded piazzas. It is now so popular that people, tourists or not, flock from all over to get a glimpse of the luring masks and tantalizing shows and parades. Other towns even have their own carnivals nowadays so everyone can take part in this beloved celebration. This year it starts on February 15th and ends on March 4th, Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday to mark the start of Lent. In fact, the name Carnival means “farewell to meat” as it marks this Christian celebration in which followers commit to some form of fasting or giving something up.
Carnival is a tradition that has been taking place for centuries, starting in the 11th century. Historically, this was a time when people of all classes took part in the festivities, including, parades, music and various shows, disguised in masks and costumes, often characters from the 16th century theater genre known as the ‘Commedia dell’arte’. Today, this is still the case but it is clear the masks and costumes and developed and transformed to catch up with the 21st century. There are two main types of masks that people wear, the bauta, heavily gilded and covers the entire face or the columbina, a half mask that covers the eyes, nose and upper half of the face, secured with a ribbon. Both those who are part of the parades and shows and those who come to marvel have the chance to disguise their true identity for a day. As a spectator, you can purchase a mask prior to coming or at one of the many shops that sell a variety of masks from the more simpler columbina to a highly elaborate mask made by one of the venetian artisans who have been passing down this craft for hundreds of years.
|Carnival in St. Mark's Square, Venice|
Each year the carnival prizes itself on a different theme or idea to bring everyone together. To celebrate the growing interrelations between different cultures, this year’s carnival is themed upon wonder and fantasy. The theme is rooted in the idea that every culture has its own expression, through fantasy and fairytales, of life. Often, these tales express the relationships between the environment and humans through images of mystical creatures and landscapes speckled with mankind. These fairytales have historically been a way to also answer the big question of the origin of life. Thus, masks will be inspired and designed by traditional fairytales and short stories of all cultures from western to African, Arabian, Mongolian, Indian and Mesoamerican in the hopes to inspire us to rediscover the importance and symbology of fantasy. And there certainly isn’t a better city that Venice to act as a stage with all its magical and mysterious corners, bridges and piazzas.
It is no surprise that the St. Mark’s square is the focal point of the carnival. No matter which day you go, you won’t miss the showing of the best dressed as people march in two morning and afternoon parades to battle for the ‘Best Masked Costume’ contest. Of course, the winners will be selected based upon their dedication to wonder and fantasy. Amongst these parades there will be various entertainment, clowning and street theatre to liven up the piazza and keep you coming for more by involving the spectators. Every parade is different as performers and street acts are always new and exciting, evoking smiles, laughter and the chance to take part in the show. If you aren’t able to make it in the morning, it is never too late because there is never a lull in the entertainment during these weeks. Every day during lunchtime between 1pm and 3pm there will be music and dance performances inspired by various cultural traditions.
Carnival in Venice is not just a time for entertainment but also, a time for new art that communicates ideas and traditions from various cultures. Every year, cultural projects including literature, photo, poetry, film and performance art will be submitted and judged based on their relevance to this years theme. At the end of the festival, these works will be published as texts.
It is also a time for sweets and treats. Every region of Italy has its own name and tradition to celebrate carnival through taste and smell. The best known are ‘frittelle’ and ‘frappe’, both types of fried dough. Frittelle are softer inside and sometimes flavored with lemon or apple while frappe are thin, crisp pieces of dough dusted with powdered sugar. You won’t be able to resist the smells wafting from bakeries in every ally. But not to worry if you are too absorbed with the entertainment to taste because you can easily find them all over, no matter where you are in Italy.
Carnival is something that everyone can take part in, whether you want to make it a day trip or stay overnight. You can either stay in the city or stay close by and come in for a couple of days. You can visit the official site here to book tickets, find suggestions and a program of events.
2014 Venice Carnival highlights:
Friday 14th February: Prologue, Valentine’s Day
Saturday 15th February: Opening of the Venetian Festival with a show, Cannaregio
Sunday 16th February: Boat pageant – Grand Canal – Cannaregio
Saturday 22nd February: The traditional "Festa delle Marie"
Sunday 23rd February: Flight of the Angel
Saturday 1st March: Float parade, Marghera
Sunday 2nd March: Flight of the Eagle and Flight of the Donkey, Mestre
Tuesday 4th March: Flight of the Lion and Prize Giving Ceremony for the "Maria" of the Carnival 2014
From 22nd February to 4th March: Best Masked Costume contest
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