The Venice Carnival
Italians pronounce it: carnay valey (translation: carne/flesh; vale/farewell). Farewell to the delights of the flesh. Like Mardi Gras it ends on Shrove Tuesday and is the final festive feast before the Lent fast.
During the Middle Ages the carnival developed into bawdy buffoonery. The anonymity of the masks meant that servants could mock their masters, couples deceive each other and satirical accounts of the behaviour of prominent persons be voiced. No change there, then. Abolished by Napoleon, the Carnival was resurrected in l980 by the Mayor of Venice. Since then it has been a poseurs’ paradise and attracted people-watchers from all over the world.
To join in all you need is a mask. You can choose one of the cheap and cheerful 'Made in China' ones sold from postcard stands in the streets or invest in a locally-made work of art from the fascinating mascari (mask shops).
It can be quite amazing how the donning of a mask can change your behaviour, as well as your appearance. Even the most inhibited people may find themselves acting out wild fantasies. Try it. Your inscrutable masked face may attract whispered quips from passing strangers. The mask shops also have all kinds of costumes for hire and there are masked balls in several hotels and palazzos. But beware: clever cross-dressing is common. All that lies beneath may not be what it seems.
Many of the masks depict characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte: Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Punchinello. One of the most popular is the 'Plague Doctor', whose mask sports a long black nose which used to be stuffed with medicinal herbs to protect him from the diseases he treated.
The whole atmosphere is one of pure fantasy, as Venetians go about their daily business dressed for other centuries. Boatloads of mystical figures with gold and silver faces emerge from the mist in the vaporetti (water buses). Human-sized cats and other animals sometimes pop up behind pillars and Little Bo Peep has been seen leading several friends dressed as sheep. But they all disappear on Ash Wednesday.
Festivities include processions, masquerades, parades of gondolas along the Grand Canal, opera and chamber concerts with the players in costume. And the unique Venetian light and shadow seems to turn the lovely squares, canals and twisting alleys into a gigantic stage set where you can act out any part you wish.