The History Of The Venice Carnival And Mask Tradition And Its Impact On Venetian Culture

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The city of Venice in general is widely acclaimed due to it’s frequent appearances in art, music, theatre and literature, both new and old. It’s world renowned association with fancy dress or ‘masquerade ball’ masks is undeniable. From the city’s stunning architecture, river boats and gondola’s to the many museums, it is recognised as a one of a kind tourist attraction in our modern world.

However, Venice, as a city, is a window into the past with deeply-rooted connections to many different countries and forgotten European empires. Venetian history also provides one of the best examples of a historical class system or hierarchy, a common trend in human history overall.

The city of Venice itself has a long history of being run by a social hierarchy or class system, similar to that of it’s European neighbours. Class systems were no stranger to European empires and Venice was no different. It consisted of the upper class ( royalty, aristocracy etc. ), the middle class, which included the upper and lower middle classes, and the lower class. During these times, Venice had a very highly respected reputation and was known for being a refined, cultured city in which it’s wealthier inhabitants lived in gilded luxury. However quite a large amount of Venice’s population included the lower classes – ordinary people who worked extremely hard for their livelihoods. The emergence of the use of the masks in the 13th century therefore posed very intriguing for the people of these classes.

The mask would permit the wearer to act more freely in cases where he/she wanted to interact with other members of society outside the bounds of identity and the ordinary everyday. The mask became a symbol of freedom and defiance towards all social rules enforced by the Republic of Venice, a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status. The mask represented the need to indulge on fun, the illusion of ‘playing tricks’. It also expressed deeper meanings : celebration and transgression, freedom and immortality.

The history of the Venetian mask can be drawn back to 1268. In this year, a law was passed that men wearing masks were forbidden to play ‘’ove’’ ( meanings ‘eggs’ in Italian ). The game involved men launching eggs filled with rosewater at women walking in the streets, in order to get their attention. This does not seems to have been quite a common practice within the realms of Italian social ‘norms’ at the time. It is however, the first recorded legislation placed on the wearing of masks and the first formal mention of them in Venetian society. Although the mask was used for a variety of purposes, some illicit and criminal, others personal, it’s true meaning was brought to life alongside the carnival.

Similar to the effect of the mask ; personal identity, gender and social class no longer existed or mattered, it was all part of the illusion of the carnival. The first ‘’Carnivale’’ started from a victory of the Venice Republic over the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico di Treven in 1162. To celebrate the victory, civilians gathered in the ‘San Marco Square’ in Venice, and danced together. It gradually became an annual celebration and masks were originally introduced to commemorate those who fought in the battle.

Venice became largely successful in following battles which led to a huge gain in territory over the years. At the height of the Republic’s power, it held control over the islands of Corfu and Crete, many islands in the Aegean and the Dalmation coast from Trieste to Albania. As victory in battle became more and more common, so did the ‘’Carnivale’’. This led to an almost constant ‘party atmosphere’ in the city and a lively spirit amongst it’s inhabitants.

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This also led to Venice becoming the focal point of medieval commerce and trade. From the beginning of the 14th century, huge ships designed for seaborne trade, known as ‘Flanders Galleys’, set sail from Venice. With them they took spices, sugar, pepper and returned with Scandinavian wood and furs, English wool, French wines and Flemish cloth. This huge dominance in trade resulted in the city becoming very wealthy, which in turn, again added to the city’s ‘party atmosphere’, and lively citizens. Both victories in battle and successful trade made the Venetian mask not just a symbol of immortality in remembering it’s dead soldiers anymore, but also largely symbolic of celebration in general.

Along with this, Venice held a relatively efficient government, although it would be seen to be quite corrupt through the eyes of modern day democracy. Political freedom was completely dependent on class ranking. The upper class or aristocracy, made up of ‘original noble families’ who had controlled Venice since tribal times were the only citizens permitted to both vote and hold public office.

The others consisted of ‘’citidini orginarii’’, meaning ‘ordinary citizens’, who could hold public office but not vote. These ‘’citidini originarii’’, were members of the middle classes. The lower class or ‘common people’, who held a limited amount of rights as citizens, but could apply for a limited number of government positions. This essentially meant that almost everything was controlled by the aristocracy. This furthermore encouraged the use of masks in immoral situations, resulting in the mask becoming a symbol of political transgression. The mask began to be used in situations like this more and more as a way for those of the lower classes to have a say in the running of their country, a symbol of freedom, particularly freedom of speech.

Venice could be seen to be at it’s peak during and after the Renaissance period. Venetian life at this time had inspired Renaissance painters such as Carpaccio and Giovanni Bellini. The artwork that was produced from Venetian inspiration established an image of this Italian city and is greatly answerable for the way in which Venice is perceived by us in the modern day.

During and after the Renaissance period, Venice enjoyed greater prosperity and freedom than any other part of Italy. The city had a relatively efficient government compared to it’s European counterparts and it was also doing well in commerce and battle. At this time, Venice acted as a model and forward-looking ‘utopian’ city that people of this time viewed as the future.

The rituals of wearing these masks and cerebrating the ‘’Carnivale’’ were of course not singularly responsible for the functioning of Venice as a ‘country’ at the time. These traditions did however allow for the mixing of social classes through quite an unlikely medium ( the mask ), something not seen in other social hierarchies around Europe. The use of the mask resulted in people who would not normally mix starting to interact with each other, it resulted in those from the lower classes having the opportunity to play a part in politics and it resulted in a sense of community fostering amongst the people of Venice, particularly in coming together at the ‘’Carnivale’’ to celebrate their loved ones and mourn their loss.

On the other hand, the mask did also often permit crimes to happen without the following up of justice or consequences. It’s obvious that both positive and negative impacts on the city were seen through people acting in these mysterious situations, and often in acts of rebellion, through wearing the Venetian mask. It is through these events that even today, if we look closely we view the mask as a symbol of general mystery and of rebellion, or even mischief.

The culture and tradition surrounded with the Venetian mask and carnival is ever present nowadays, in the ancient city and arguably is greatly responsible for the way Venice is today. In my opinion, the Venetian mask could even be seen to be similar to our modern day technology such as mobile phones and computers, and even more so – the internet. A device or object that can be used to disguise oneself in order to express one’s true views or opinions, and to communicate with virtually anyone across the globe. The mask was used for exactly this in Venice, on a much smaller scale.

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