Carnevale di Venezia
Carnival, or Carnevale, is Venice's answer to Mardi Gras and Fasching. For eight days before Lent each winter, tourists flood the city for an orgy of pageants, commedia dell'arte, concerts, balls, and masked self-display until Shrove Tuesday signals an end to the party.
Carnevale isn't just a Venetian tradition; similar festivities occur throughout much of the Roman Catholic world, including other cities in Italy. The term "carnevale" comes from the Latin for "farewell to meat" and suggests a good-bye party for the steaks and stews that Catholics traditionally gave up during the weeks of fasting before Easter. The masquerade aspect of Carnival is even older: the Romans celebrated winter with a fertility festival where masks were worn by citizens and slaves alike.
In its glory days of the 1700s, the Carnevale di Venezia began on December 26 and lasted until Ash Wednesday, with mask-wearing and other unofficial activities continuing well into the spring. The nonstop partying, gambling, and general irresponsibility reflected the decline of the Venetian Republic, which had begun to lose wealth and power with the rise of Dutch and British trade in the 1600s. After Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice in 1797, the Republic was finished and so were the desultory remnants of Carnival.
Next page: Today's Venice Carnival