The Republic of Venice had the greatest number of state ceremonies and feasts in Europe, until it lasted. And there are no doubts that the Republic lasted for an extraordinary period of time, in fact when Napoleon took it over, in 1797, it was the oldest State in Europe.
Historians have carried out research for many decades in order to find which were the reasons of the famous Venetian political and institutional stability and they have decided that the so called Venetian “social peace” was due to many different aspects. One of them depended on the state feasts and celebration, which helped to obtain consent and to maintain social harmony. The celebration of the Carnival in Venice must be considered according to this point of view.
The tradition of celebrating Carnival in Venice began in the 11th century, but reached its peak in the 18th century. Carnival normally began on Boxing day and reached its climax the day after Ash Wednesday, but, most of the time, the Republic decreed that it could have been longer and that it could have lasted for many months.
But what was the meaning of Carnival and why did the Republic decide to improve that feast? At Carnival time people could practise many activities normally forbidden by the restrictive political and, especially, religious, laws. Some of these activities were, for example, going to the theatres or to the public gambling-rooms, or organizing private feasts, balls etc.
Another very important aspect of Carnival, was that, by wearing masks and disguises, social divisions could be abolished for a while and people of different social classes could mix together. That is why Noblemen and common people had always to wear masks and disguises at Carnival.
The traditional disguise for Noblemen consisted of a black silk hood and a lace cape, a black cloak (tabarro), and a three cornered hat . The face was covered by a white mask in papier maché. The name given to this disguise is bauta.
As we can see by observing the interesting little paintings by Pietro Longhi, many special events took place at Carnival time. One year, for example, a rhinoceros was exposed in a kind of circus, another year they decided to show, as an attraction, a “giant” , an enormous man. Other “strange” things to show were dwarves or exotic animals. Besides, there is a famous painting by Francesco Guardi, now at the Ca’ Rezzonico museum, which shows a very interesting aspect of the Venetian Carnival: the so called “Ridotto”. The Ridotto was a gambling-room controlled by the State and run by Noblemen, but were people of any social class could enter and mix (hidden by their disguises an masks, of course!)
Image credits: National Geographic, Wikipedia