After dark dalliances in Italy

two people dressed up for venice carnivale

All is not as it seems in Venice in the weeks preceding Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras. Mystery and intrigue lurk around every corner, as everyone from lawyers, teachers, carpenters and dentists by day, unleash their alter egos by night. Intrepid’s Chotie Moloney discovered that throughout history orderly conduct has given way to indulgent behaviour during this flamboyant festival…

“Venetians adorned in black costumes with white masks and black tricorn hats would promenade through the streets and easily be mistaken for ghosts in the moonlight. The air was filled with excitement and anticipation. Thus was the magic of Carnevale di Venezia.

Dating back centuries, the carnival of Venice was celebrated by the gentry and working class alike. Venetian masks brought anonymity and freed people from the judgement of others, all of whom were known to each other in such a small city. Promiscuity, gambling, drinking and other indiscretions were enjoyed with irreverent abandon in this environment.

The masquerade went through periods of being outlawed by the prevailing church, the ruling aristocracy and in the 1930s by the fascist government. The modern celebration of Carnevale has been enjoyed since the 1980s and has revived the art of making Venetian masks.

Although the original masks were simple in design and decoration, modern masks are more flamboyant. The traditional method uses clay as a base for the mask. Papier-mache is then applied and the masccereri paints designs in gold, silver, black, white and other brighter hues. The mask maker then decorates using sequins, silk ribbons, feathers, rhinestones, leather, charms, glitter and other baubles. The Bauta mask covers the entire face, while the Columbino is a half mask with gold and silver stripes and jewelled eyes. The Moretta is an oval mask of black velvet covered with a veil. These were worn by young women visiting from convents and the design originated in France. Other shapes that have been popularised include large hooked noses, black and white checkered diamonds known as the Harlequin and bright red lips.

Throughout its history, Carnevale costumes have included fantasy characters like cavemen, jokers, lions and birds. The priest costume was a daring choice in old Venice, as it allowed the wearer to make fun of religious figures who ruled the society in a repressive and hypocritical manner. The clown with a feathered hat was chosen by those who considered themselves jokesters. Men impersonated women and felt free to ridicule them.

Inspired by Venice’s plague afflicted history, the plague doctor is characterised by his mask with the big nose, which was filled with herbs and protected the doctor from the unpleasant odours of death. There was also a victim of the plague, covered with bloody sores, rags and a wooden leg. Merchants, aristocrats, politicians, royalty, dancers, singers, musicians, painters and those immortalised in children’s books and street theatre have all been used to create elaborate disguises to hide the true identity of the wearer and thus maintain the essence of this annual spectacle.”

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About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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