Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Carnevale Italiano – The History of Italian Carnival

There are numerous versions regarding the history of the festivities of Carnival or Carnevale Italiano. Most begin in the 1400s but the most reliable seems to tie the Christian celebration of Carnival with the Roman Empire’s pagan celebration of the Saturnali. The Saturnali are the celebrations from December to March of the Roman version of the Greek God Zeus, or father of the gods. The first real information is found in 1268 where the first costumes, known as Maschere, were prohibited in the casinos of Venice. Venice is seems to have exalted the festivities and also to have been the place where the Catholic Church did its best to eliminate it.

In the early 1300s masks were prohibited in church and when large groups would assemble in the streets. In 1487 the youth of Venice rebelled and created the group of the socks. The members were primarily young adults from wealthy noble families who would parade around town in costume, have a great time and distribute food to the poor.

In Medieval the use of masks, costumes, parades and celebrations took root in the cities across Europe. They were seen as a way to equalize the people, eliminating connotations of rich and poor, educated and ignorant. Carnival was a time for the people to unite and to have fun before the 40 days of Lent, which meant penitence, fasting and prayer. During this period the streets would fill with fire eaters, parades, puppet shows, dancers, coriandoli and Stelle Filanti (rolls of colored paper the open when thrown like falling stars). It was also a time when the people from the various quarters of the city would go into neighboring sectors and throw flour on the people, carry clubs of straw to imitate battles and generally create a great ruckus.

In the 1600s the Church struck back supporting a law prohibiting the use of masks all year long except in official occasions. The Penalties for transgression were severe. But again the people fought back and in 1776 a populous movement was able get the “Family Honor” act that required women to wear masks and full traditional epic costumes to the theater. Again the anti-fun club significantly hindered the celebrations of Carnival when the Austrian Empire took over Italy in the XVIII century. The Austrians did not understand the importance of the theater, the parades, costumes and the masks. They prohibited everything and it took another 200 years for Carnival to return. Unfortunately the theatrical folkloristic representations, costumes and stories did not recover. Today only the parades, sometimes kids with flour running the streets and masks during the last week of Carnival survived.

Today parades represent current political, religious and cultural themes. Masks represent celebrities but in Venice and Viareggio you can still find the traditional Carnival.


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