THE DOGE AND THE FOOL - CARNIVAL TIME IN ITALY

 

 

You’ve no doubt heard of the Carnival, a festival that takes place around the world in the two weeks leading up to Lent (the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, which serves as preparation for Easter and involves fasting and penitence). While there is some argument about the origin of the word “Carnival,” the most popular explanation is that it is derived from the Latin words: carne (meat) and vale (farewell), which together become carne-vale or “farewell to meat.” 

You’ve no doubt heard of the Carnival, a festival that takes place around the world in the two weeks leading up to Lent (the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, which serves as preparation for Easter and involves fasting and penitence). While there is some argument about the origin of the word “Carnival,” the most popular explanation is that it is derived from the Latin words: carne (meat) and vale (farewell), which together become carne-vale or “farewell to meat.”

 Venice Carnival by the sea. Credit: I’m|Possible, during our last incentive tours.

Venice Carnival by the sea. Credit: I’m|Possible, during our last incentive tours.

In ancient times, meat was considered an extravagance to be served only on special occasions; it was the food of the rich and even, in some earlier times, an offering to the gods. So, the banning of meat during Lent was clearly symbolic of banning the indulgences and superficial excesses of our lives, meat serving as a symbol of carnal pleasures, excitement and lust.

Now this begs the question, why ban meat, along with eggs, fish and all other delights of life? And why is the Carnival, which is a massive celebration of passion, lust and celebration, named after the ban of the occasion itself? Is it an oxymoron? 
 
To cut a long story short, these things are banned for Lent, to get the body and subsequently the soul and spirit ready for the single most important occasion in the Christian calendar: Pasqua, or Easter Sunday.

And here’s where people’s psychologies kicked in and said, ‘wait a moment… if we’re banning all the good stuff of life for the next 40 days, can’t we just have two weeks of fun first and then start?’

‘Ok, let’s go wild, let’s break all the rules, let’s feast like there’s no tomorrow, have wild sex, party, and behave out of character and out of our minds. Then we’ll be ready to fast and repent and receive the new elevation and the celebration of our mighty Lord and the son of G-d, Jesus Christ our Savior’.

 Beautiful masks in one of the famous squares of Venice. Credit: I’m|Possible, during our last incentive tours in Venice.

Beautiful masks in one of the famous squares of Venice. Credit: I’m|Possible, during our last incentive tours in Venice.

A very similar kind of ritual can actually be traced back to Roman times and celebrations; one that took place in the same period of time with the same idea of breaking loose from all governmental laws and social structure and the daily order, all while following the agricultural calendar and worship of the gods. It was called the Bacchanalia — the Roman festival of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy. Based on the Greek Dionysia and the Dionysian mysteries, the tales of Bacchus probably arrived in Rome c. 200 BC via the Greek colonies in southern Italy.

So in ancient times, there was established a two-week period in which people were able to unleash their desires and challenge social order; break loose from their social status and behave as if there was no tomorrow — just so they could ease into Lent… oh, but unfortunately, there was always a tomorrow — a tomorrow in which one’s neighbors would recognize them; the king would punish them and their family would be thoroughly ashamed of them.

So, the best way to enjoy this great feast and freedom — without suffering any ‘morning after’ repercussions — was simply not to be recognized. Hence, it became common to dress up in a mask and hide one’s countenance, before setting out to flout all social restraints. The leaders, religious and civil, understood that people needed this kind of release once a year, in order to remain good, law-abiding subjects during the rest of the month and year to come, and so the extravagant behavior was allowed — or at least overlooked — by the authorities, for these two weeks.

 A mysterious mask in Venice. Credit: I’m|Possible, during one of our incentive tours.

A mysterious mask in Venice. Credit: I’m|Possible, during one of our incentive tours.

[As an interesting aside, in regards to masks and ancient times, when a person is acting unlike himself, we say he is putting on a “masquerade”… when we wear makeup to hide our true colors we put on “mascara” … and in the Middle East, when we haggle in the market place, putting on an act in order to make a better deal, it’s called maschara. Moreover, in ancient Greece, the word persona in the theatre meant a mask, and today, when we speak of how a person reacts and behaves towards others, we call it their “personality.”]

Thus, from Roman times through the Middle Ages and on to modern times, the Carnival has taken many forms, styles and colors, and has no doubt affected millions of people worldwide, playing a meaningful role for millions of Catholics in their religious life and in the delicate fabric of civil life, and thus surviving the abrasion of time.

Perhaps most interesting is to observe the different forms the carnival has taken on in different world locations — always with the same meaning but wearing very different appearances. In Brazil, where the climate is hot and the people are even hotter, the carnival is all about showing bare skin, dancing, sex, passion and going wild.
At the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, it’s all about local rituals and traditions intertwined with those of tribal heritage, along with unique costumes and music.

Yes, you say… but how does the Carnival appear in ITALY?

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Try to picture Italy in the Middle Ages during the feudal period. What you know today as a united territory, at that time was divided into hundreds of lands and principalities, each with its own culture, laws, traditions, language, social inclinations, food, art, etc., and each ruled by a different authority and governor (kings, princes, aristocratic families, war lords and others).

Thus, as you can imagine, Carnival time in each area, though basically built along the same idea and religious reasoning, actually looked and felt completely different from place to place and district to district. The Carnival happens everywhere simultaneously, but is nevertheless unique and special in each and every place.

Let’s take Venice as our first example — one of the most unique cities in the world. Venice, as an autonomous land and empire, though Catholic, was self-sufficient financially and actually one of the strongest “nations” through the Middle Ages, until the discovery of new maritime routes to the new land of America.

 An intriguing mask ready to capture you in Venice Carnival panthomime! Credit: I’m|Possible.

An intriguing mask ready to capture you in Venice Carnival panthomime! Credit: I’m|Possible.

Venice was strong, independent, rich and very eccentric, due to its commerce with the Far East and the Middle East (much like the Ancient Roman Empire). All extravagant goods came through the powerful port of Venice and the city was colored with new exotic smells of faraway perfumes, herbs, fruits and vegetables, arts and crafts and a great deal of gold and silver. So Venice was magnificent and colorful, clearly evident in its art — unique for its period and very different from the schools of Florence and Rome, which, being commissioned and paid for by the church, had a far more religious orientation. Venetian art, on the other hand, hailed from private schools that were owned or supported by wealthy merchants with a totally different agenda. Thus art in Venice was influenced by colors, sights and overseas adventures, and while it would have been mind-blowing anywhere and anytime, it was especially so in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Now, imagine that Carnival time has arrived in Venice. What do you think it would have looked like? Yep, you guessed it — like a true carnival!
Remember, the carnival is also about opposites; the rejection of normal life in favor of chaos — only to return to the normal dogma and routine of life at its end… However, as normal life in Venice was already chaos, Carnival time was… mega chaos.

At Carnival time in Venice, the Doge of Venice was stripped of his title, becoming a peasant or a fool, while the city’s fool was actually crowned the doge, in a symbolic and real upside-down role-play of defying the order of life and creation. This took place during the two weeks of Carnival in medieval times. In Roman times, at the end of the festivities, the unfortunate fool was beheaded, as a way to both symbolically and physically restore order.

Venice at one stage became overwhelmed by power, intrigues and decadence, the result of which was that just about everyone wore a mask at all times when leaving their house — not only during Carnival, but year round, to avoid recognition when doing something wrong!

 Join our incentive tour for the Carnival of Venice. Credit: I’m|Possible.

Join our incentive tour for the Carnival of Venice. Credit: I’m|Possible.

With its hundreds of canals, bridges and churches, Venice is a unique city and actually the most amazing site in which to host a colorful and extravagant Carnival. The Carnival in Italy is held between February and March, during the height of winter; the cold weather probably dictated that people would be fully dressed from toe to ear, and aided in the need to not be recognized. In Rio and New Orleans, on the other hand, where the climate and the culture are very warm, we find a completely different concept, in which participants try to take off as many clothes as possible.

The carnival in Venice was actually banned by Napoleon in 1797, when he conquered Venice, dissolved the local government and passed its rule over to the Austrians. It was only nearly 200 years later, in the 1970s, that the idea formed to recreate the carnival as we meet it today.

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In fact, it is one of the highlights of our trip — but not the only one, as we visit at least three more carnivals during our one-week Italian carnival incentive trip. Each Carnival we visit is completely different from the others, unique in its character, dress, tastes and costumes.

In Venice you will encounter a completely unique urban structure, unlike any to be found anywhere else in the world. There, the dialogue between manmade wonders and the sea will leave you in awe. The city is already so surrealistic and enigmatic in its daily life that in Carnival times it becomes a true fairytale-like experience, in which you can turn the corner of a canal and suddenly encounter a family dressed out of the 16th century or in some other splendid costume.

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The participants are spread throughout the city, but all make their way to Piazza San Marco, the main square, every day at 4pm, for the main event. There they show off their outlandish costumes, hoping to win the title of ‘Day’s Best’ and ultimately ‘Best Costume of the Year”. Much time, effort and money is spent on bringing these masterpieces to perfection and, unlike in many other carnivals in Italy and around the world, it is completely personal, done for the love of it, which makes it even more amazing.

During Carnival, we can find special fried biscuits called galani or chiacchere, wine and spirits like the spritz (Austria’s contribution to Venice) and desserts served only during Carnival time. We’ll also visit a few of the many bacari — the local Venetian bars that date back to before the unification of Italy, when they were where the sailors and gondoliers would go after long periods at sea. It’s also always amazing to see the oldest cafes in the main square, such as Florian from 1720 and Quadri from 1775, packed with traditionally-dressed characters, offering us a most realistic glimpse into Venetian life as it was 300 years ago.

We will take a local historic gondola ride through the peaceful canals, check out the view from the bell tower rising up to nearly 100 meters for a stupendous view of Venice Laguna and the entire city from above, and visit a local restaurant with dishes to die for. We’ll also get to visit the Rialto Bridge — the first to connect the two sides of the Grand Canal, back in 1496. And above all, we’ll experience and see the most amazing costumes in one of the amazing cities in the world, a feast for all senses.

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Join us this coming February in Italy, along with millions of Catholics, to celebrate the beginning of spring, as we journey to four different carnival celebrations held throughout the country. Naturally, we’ll also taste the renowned culinary delights of Italy, visit its magnificent natural landscapes, and experience the embrace of the people of Italy, whose natural warmth is further magnified at this time of year. From charming medieval towns and countryside straight out of a fairytale, to Italian food you thought only existed in the movies, you will truly receive the Italian experience, in its entire splendor.

[Coming up in our next article, discover other Carnivals of Italy, including the Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea, where villagers clothe themselves in traditional dress and set out for war, armed with over 100,000 tons of oranges…]

 

 

Reward, Recharge and Return. Arrivederci in Italy!