CHIAVARI, Italy - Carnival starts this week and in just a few days the streets of Chiavari will be littered with confetti and globs of silly string and the kids take to the streets dressed like princesses and Barbary pirates, eye patches and all. Every town has its own unique Carnival festivity but I think Carnival in Venice is probably the most famous.
Almost everybody knows about that blow out, dress up party that the Venetians do so well, but did you know it actually began as a pagan festival called Saturnalia. Saturn was the Roman God of the Harvest, and Saturnalia was more or less their Thanksgiving.
The festival was supposed to commemorate the merry reign of Saturn, the god of agriculture who lived on earth long ago as a righteous and beneficent king of Italy. The story is that it was Saturn who brought the uneducated and scattered dwellers on the mountains of Italy together, taught them to work the land, gave them laws and ruled in peace.
Back in the day (the day of the Romans) the festivities would start with a sacrifice (some say human but that’s debatable) at the Temple of Saturn followed by a public banquet. It was the only time of the year when slaves and masters could hide their faces behind masks and eat, drink and dance (and maybe do some other things too) as equals.
Celebrating carnival in Italy first shows up in the history books in 1092 AD. Wearing masks is newer, it only goes back to the 13th century. And this is interesting, in 1268 the Council of Venice outlawed men throwing scented eggs at ladies. Can't imagine why they threw them in the first place. Maybe guys have always been weird, even back then.
The masks have their own story. Take the bauta, for example, shown above. It was regulated under Venetian law and lawmakers had to wear such a mask at certain political decision-making sessions when all citizens were to be considered equals.
It only referred to men of course, but the reason for it was to guarantee free, equal and secret ballots. Just as an aside, it was specifically forbidden by law to carry weapons of any type when wearing the mask and Venetian police enforced that law with vigor.
Because of all the hanky-panky that went on during Carnival, and still does, the Italian government has tried for centuries to restrict celebrations and ban the wearing of masks. But I think they’ve just about given up on that idea. It’s too much fun.
Unlike Carnival in Brazil which is celebrated with a huge parade with floats and dancing girls, in Venice the people are the show. Men, women and sometimes children parade up and down and all around Piazza San Marco, and pose for photos on Venice’s famous bridges. All in costume and masks of course, although this guy (photo above) looks like he puts this outfit on every day of the week.
I think that's her hair sticking out of the top of her hat, but I can't be sure. All I know is that after the gondola and boat parades along the Grand Canal, after the confetti and multi-colored streamers that fly through the air, Carnival in Venice ends with a great fireworks show, and grand galas in elegant Venetian palazzi. Those Venetians really know how to throw a party.