Venice transforms into an all-day celebration for Carnevale, the final weeks before Lent. Traditionally, Catholics observed the Lenten period by abstaining from luxuries like meat (“carne”) in an effort to honor the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and in prayer in the desert.
Although some Catholics continue to observe this tradition, most take a more relaxed view towards this season on the church calendar, maybe giving up a single pleasure as a devotional measure. In America, the biggest pre-Lenten celebration is Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In Europe, the party is in Venice and the city comes alive with people from across the world who gather along the canals and pack St. Mark’s Square in the week’s leading to Fat Tuesday.
The city’s Carnevale celebrations honor the masked revelry of 16th century Venice when the Carnevale period gave Venetians an excuse to let loose behind the safety of a mask. In this small town, where people lived in close proximity to each other and social classes were rigidly segmented and societal expectations were sky high, these masked celebrations were an opportunity to escape those confines and enjoy life to the fullest.
The Venice celebrations have a long and complex history. They date back to as early as the 1100s, and were extremely popular in the 16th-18th century. However celebrations and masks were banned when Venice was occupied by the Austrian Empire in 1797. The celebrations came back into fashion as occasional private events for artistic events in the 1900s, but it wasn’t until 1979 that they returned as a public event.
Today they are a glorious street celebration where the action radiates throughout the city from St. Mark’s Square.