Merry meet!


Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Before moving to Italy the only inkling I had about Carnevale was Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had no clue that it all started in Italy centuries before and that it gradually spread to other European countries and then overseas.              

Carnival is a big deal for Italians. Carnevale in Italy is a huge winter festival celebrated with parades, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties. Children throw confetti at each other, as do adults. Mischief and pranks are also common during Carnevale, hence the saying A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale, anything goes at carnival. I think it's also a mysterious time.

Carnevale has roots in pagan festivals and traditions, more specifically the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia and as is often the case with traditional festivals was adapted to fit into the Catholic rituals. Saturnalia was in honour of the god Saturn and was characterized by role reversing and behavioural license. Everyone, including slaves who were freed for the occasion,would wear masks so that they could be free to be and do what they wanted.  

Although carnival is actually one date, in Venice and some other places in Italy the carnival celebrations and parties may begin a couple weeks before.

Venice, Viareggio, and Ivrea carnevale festivals are the biggest carnival celebrations in Italy, even though all towns and villages have their own personal  and particular type of celebration. However, I think that as orginal as they all are, the most fascinating and magical (and sometimes spinetingling and a bit eerie and sinister too) is the Carnival of Venice.

The Venetian Carnival starts 58 days before Easter and ends on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday, which opens the period of Lent. Martedi Grasso, or Fat Tuesday as it is also known, is the last day in which you can eat richer foods before the fasting period. Most Italian families gather together to devour lasagna, cannelloni or other dishes of baked pasta and of meat dishes consisting of pork or roast. There are also a whole array of traditional sweets associated to Carnevale such as chiacchiere, frappe, crespelle and castagnole with each region having their own distinctive version.

The allure of the city and its masks is what makes Venice, the Serenissima, the Floating City, the City of Masks so enticing (at least for me). Once a powerful and dominant maritime republic, today it is considered one of the most romantic cities in the world. No wonder Casanova lived here.

I've been to Venice twice, but never at Carnevale. The grand palazzi, the lagoon, the gondolas, the canals, the bridges and all the shops full of masks and blown-glass art. It's an incredible place to visit. The Doge's Palace is quite imposing but richly adorned. Saint Marco's Basilica is breathtaking. The golden mosaic inside is unbelievable as is the solemnity of the place. You wonder while walking through the streets what goes on in the sumptuous buildings afterhours. What intrigues are being carried out, what plots are being planned, what mysteries are hidden from the common citizen ( ok, maybe my imagination is running amuk and I've read too many novels, Cry to Heaven, The Rossetti Letter, for example, that are set in Venice when it was a mighty republic... sorry).
I hope to eventually take part in the celebrations and get a taste of the old, intriguing atmosphere that reigned here once and that in part still does.



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