A time for amusement, dissolving social tensions, transgressions and of figurative representations of victories and conquests. For the Serenissima, Carnival was the period of the year in which the population was allowed to do almost anything, when differences between the nobility and common people were removed. The event continued to be held over the years, but it slowly began to lose its local connotations and become an tourist attraction.
The word Carnival comes from the Latin — carnem levare, that is, to "remove the meat" — originally referring to the first day of Lent. The Venetian Carnival has been celebrated since 1094 under the Doge Vitale Falier, dedicated to public entertainment in the days before Lent. In 1296 the Senate of the Republic declared the last day before Lent a holiday, thus making the Carnival a public holiday.
Since then, Carnival has always remained fashionable among the Venetians and become known abroad. It used to begin on the first Sunday of October, intensifying the day after the Epiphany and culminated in the days preceding Lent. The Venetian Carnival was longer than those in other cities, and at the time, Venetians temporarily left their daily occupations to devote themselves entirely to entertainment. Stages were built in the main squares, along the Riva degli Schiavoni, and in the Piazzetta and St Mark's Square, where people flocked to admire the jugglers, acrobats and dancing animals performing in the streets. There was a desire to party and celebrate – trumpets, pipes and drums were almost worn out through use; sellers with fruit, chestnuts, frìtole (doughnuts) and sweets of all kinds walked around peddling foods from France or other distant countries. Furthermore, the courtyard of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (now a shopping centre and once the headquarters of the Post Office) was open for public dances for three days and nights, where anyone could frolic, disguised as they desired: Pantalone, Brighella, Arlecchino, in the most diverse contemporary masks, or simply in a black cloak, the tabarro, with the classic black mask over the face (the bauta), behind which the aristocracy and the masked dames mingled with the general population while going wild with joy. The Serenissima’s subtle strategy in granting a period of transgression and liberation to the entire population helped to keep tensions and malaise at bay.The most intense days were giovedì grasso (the last thursday before lent) and martedì grasso (Shrove Tuesday), in the preceding sette giorni grassi, ending with martedì grasso and the lean and purifying period of Lent: it was the opportunity to literally empty the pantries and enjoy the most nutritious and fatty foods in preparation for the next 40 days of purification.
These were the days when a special event was the Volo della colombina (Flight of the small dove), where an acrobat descended on ropes from St. Mark’s bell tower to the loggia of the Palazzo Ducale below, scattering flowers and paying homage to the Doge. In time, the acrobat was replaced by a large wooden dove which scattered flowers and confetti over the crowd during its descent. Other attractions were the Forze d’Ercole (The Strength of Hercules), where participants — through great effort — created human towers, and the Macchina dei fuochi (Firework machines), which created swirling fireworks that were a real danger to anyone standing nearby. There was also giovedì grasso (the last thursday before lent) when bulls were sacrificed, an event that is the origin of the saying ‘Tagiar ła tesat al toro’ (Cut the the bull’s head) and also the saying De zioba grasso tute łe boche łica (On fat thursday, all mouths can lick).
Some carnivals stand out from the others in history: that of 1571 after the victory of Lepanto, in 1587 with big themed parades with carts and horses, and in 1696 where there were carriages of noblemen dressed as women. These and many others were described in the annals of the history of Venice, evidence of the importance and grandeur of the celebration.
The Carnival began to slowly disappear after the fall of the Republic, certainly not helped by the fact that it was frowned upon by the Austrians and French. The tradition was however kept alive on the islands, especially in Burano, where it continued to be celebrated with changing fortunes. Only towards the end of the 1970s did private citizens and public associations work to revive the "Famous Carnival"; it was thus re-born in 1979 with a program packed full of events involving the entire population.
The Carnival increasingly grew in the years that followed thanks to some great initiatives, was televised and supported by wealthy sponsors and attracted curious crowds from all over the world wearing thousands of masks while peacefully occupying the city. As a result, citizens have become more and more marginalized from this now cosmopolitan celebration, to the point of being almost extraneousness from it; it has turned into a Carnival "for others", in practice a mere tourist attraction, even if very engaging.