The Carnival of Venice: History and Masks

In Italy February is the month of the carnival and the most famous event of this period is certainly the Carnival of Venice.

In fact, unlike other carnival celebrations, the carbival of Venice celebrates, through costumes and masks, is the magic of ancient eighteenth-century Venice, when the city was the center of the world for wealth, commerce and culture.

The calendar includes many events. The most famous is the flight of the angel, that officially sanctions the beginning of the carnival. It consists of the flight that the Maria (Mary) makes from the bell tower of San Marco, descending into the square.

On the last day, the election of the new Maria takes place. The woman that the following year will perform the angel’s flight.

Origins of the carnival

The word carnevale (carnival) comes from the Latin carnem levare, eliminate the meat. It refers to the day after Fat Tuesday, which began the period of lent with abstinence and fasting.

To find the origins of the carnival you have to go far back in time, precisely in the pagan rituals of the transition from winter to spring, or to Dionysian cults.

The basic concept is mostly the same: granting the poorest classes the illusion of becoming nobles, and of being able to scoff at the nobles by wearing a mask on their faces and without being punished


In Venice, the first document in which officially cites the carnival, is an edict of the Senate of 1296. However, as early as 1271 we have news of the production of masks in the workshops of the city’s artisans.

Once the Carnival allowed the Venetians to leave the work and devote themselves entirely to fun. Jugglers, acrobats, musicians performed in the squares, and the street vendors sold sweets of all kinds.

In 1700 the Carnival of Venice reached its peak, becoming famous throughout Europe. It’s the Venice of Giacomo Casanova, a temple of pleasure and fun. The city becomes the fulcrum of European entertainment and finds its climax in the carnival.

In the nineteenth century, however, Venice and its Carnival embody the international romantic myth, becoming a destination for artists, writers, musicians, adventurers and beautiful ladies from around the world: Princess Sissi of Austria, Wagner, Byron.

Since 1797 after the fall of the Venetian Republic and the occupation of Napoleon first and then Austrian, the festivities for the Carnival were interrupted for the fear of rebellion.

Only at the end of the seventies some citizens and civic associations undertook to resurrect the Carnival of Venice. In 1979, together with the Municipality, the La Fenice Theater and the Biennale, they prepared an 11-day program, also leaving plenty of room for improvisation.

Today the carnival is a great event that involves big sponsors, televisions and attracts curious people from all over the world.

The Masks

The masks are the essence of the Carnival of Venice. The streets and squares are transformed into a great stage where everything seems to become possible thanks to total anonymity.


Among the most famous masks is the Bauta, in use exclusively in Venice, consisting of a black cloak (tabarro), a black tricorn hat with a white face.
It was worn by both men and women and ensured complete anonymity. In fact, the particular shape of the mask allowed to eat and drink without having to remove it. The space for the nose was very narrow and made it possible to “mask” the voice as well.

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The Moretta was used a lot by women. It consisted of a velvet mask with a hat and a very refined veil. To wear it, it was necessary to hold it with a button held in the mouth. This meant that the character could not speak. For this reason, it was also called serva muta (mute servant).


The Colombina covers only half the face and is, in some ways, more comfortable. It has vorious decorations, from feathers to various inlays, there are several models, even very expensive.


The Plague doctor’s mask looks like a bird. It was created in 1600, period of the plague. The doctors used to wear the mask when they visited the hospital and it owes its shape to the fact that the beak contained herbs to purify the infected air that they breathed.


Finally, the Gnaga is a mask with the appearance of a cat. Men used it to impersonate female figures.

If you want to know more about Venice and its traditions read our other articles

Venice in winter

The story of gondola

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