Venice Carnevale 2009

Venice swings into Carnevale mode from this weekend.  In predominantly Roman Catholic countries, such as Italy, Portugal and Brazil, carnevale marks the final celebration before the commencement of fasting and the austerity of Lent.

The Carnevale of Venice was for a long time the most famous carnevale.  From Italy, carnevale traditions spread to Spain, Portugal, and France, and then on to the rest of the world.

Venice is an ideal setting for carnevale masquerades.  With its many bridges criss-crossing the Grand Canal, dark arcades and narrow alley-ways that sometimes open out into surprisingly beautiful courtyards, the atmostphere is set for mystery and anonymity.  That mysterious masked man dashing off around the corner – is he a nobleman racing off to an illicit rendezvous with his mistress or is he a crim who’s just on his way to commit a felony, or maybe he’s an undercover cop on his way to stakeout the Italian Job – we will certainly never know!

The first day of carnevale season can vary with local traditions, but it usually ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent. Traditionally no parties may be held during Lent and many foods, such as meat, are forbidden.  To prepare for the period of abstinence, it is natural for people to want to indulge in a large celebration at the last possible opportunity before fasting begins.

Venice Carnevale

Venice Carnevale

To those unfamiliar with its customs, Carnevale appears to be a rowdy, fun event with parades and masquerades, music, dancing and performances. Parts of the carnevale traditions, however, quite possibly date back to pre-Christian times.

For example, the ancient Roman festivals of the Saturnalia and Bacchanalia are probably the origin of the Italian Carnevale.  The Saturnalia could in turn be based on the Greek Dionysia and oriental festivals. Unlike medieval pageants and festivals such as Corpus Christi which were celebrations sanctioned by the church, carnevale was a representation of medieval folk culture. Many local carnevale customs are also based on local pre-Christian rituals, for example the elaborate rites involving masked figures in the Swabian-Alemannic carnival.

There are various theories as to how the word carnevale originated.  According to one theory, it comes from the Greek prefix carn “meat eater”, referring to a cart in a religious parade – such as a cart in the annual religious procession held in honor of the god Apollo.  Other sources suggest that the name comes from the Italian carne levare or similar, meaning “to remove meat”, since meat is prohibited during Lent. Yet another theory indicates that the word comes from the Late Latin expression carne vale, meaning “farewell to meat”, signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent.  From the above, there appears a common thread in regard to abstinence from meat which is observed by Christians during Lent.

Yet another translation depicts carne vale as “a farewell to the flesh”, a phrase definitely embraced by certain carnevale celebrations that encourage letting go of your everyday self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival…


More info:
Venice Guide
Carnival Masks

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