“I have hardly had a wink of sleep this week past. We are in agonies of the Carnival’s last days and I must be up all night as well as tomorrow. I have had some curious masking adventures this Carnival; but as they are not yet over, I shall not say [now]. I will work the mine of my youth to the last veins of the ore, and then – good night. I have lived, and am content.”
Byron to Thomas Moore in 1818
“All the world repairs to Venice to see the folly and madness of the Carnival.”
John Evelyn in the XVII century
Along with the gondola, the Carnival was one of the sights of Venice most remarked on by eighteenth-century grand tourists, reflecting the Venetian taste for masquerade and love of play acting. The carnivals in Rome and Venice, were renowned throughout Europe, but, whereas the Roman carnival lasted a mere twelve days, its Venetian counterpart lasted for two months from 26th December (St Stephen’s Day) until the beginning of Lent. During that period St Mark’s Square was full of puppet theatres, tight-rope walkers, clowns and acrobats and, according to Francis Misson, writing in 1688, “a thousand sorts of Jack puddings. Strangers and Courtesans come in shoals from all parts of Europe”. In addition to adopting disguises and masks, those who attended the Carnival were expected, as in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, to improvise in certain roles: the stiff Englishman, the garrulous woman from Burano, the sophistical lawyer, the sinister plague doctor, the mad man, and, in the early nineteenth-century, the English sailor, were popular subjects. As the memoirs of Casanova and the later letters of Byron reveal, the adoption of masks and disguises provided ample opportunity for sexual intrigue.
The Carnival officially lasted until Ash Wednesday, but the carnivalesque spirit continued throughout the year in the eighteenth century, one high point being the Maundy Thursday celebrations in the Piazzetta. Then huge architectural structures were erected in the Piazzetta connected by wires to the Doge’s Palace, bulls were slaughtered in memory of the victory over the patriarchs of Aquilea, an Arsenal worker crossed the Piazzetta on a tight-rope to present a bouquet of flowers to the Doge, and members of the feuding Nicoletti and Castellani districts formed human pyramids in trials of strength called the Forze di Ercole and led a battle dance between Moors and Christians culminating in a firework display.
Given its essentially subversive nature, it is small wonder that Napoleon outlawed the Carnival and the Austrians did their best to suppress it. Despite this, it was still very much in evidence when Byron was in Venice, but by the 1860s it had died out. In 1979 it was officially revived, but the modern carnival has become essentially a tourist event in which few of the participants are Venetian.