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Eroticism at the carnival of Venice

February 19, 2014

Honouring its announced date, the Carnival of Venice will be once again this year (from February 22nd to March 4th) a symbol of luxury for this mundane party. For 20 years the Carnivals have captured the attention of Italians and Europeans as events that should not to be missed.

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Origin of the Carnival

“The Carnival has its origins in the ancient “Bacchanalia” – celebrations that were held in honour of the god Bacchus, in the “Saturnalia” which were held in honour of the god Saturn and in the “Lupercalia” which were held in honour of the god Pan, all these celebrations being held in Greece and in Rome. These celebrations were characterised by civil disorder and moral debauchery.

In the celebrations held in honour of the god Bacchus, also known as “orgies” or “Bacchanalia”, half-naked women would run around the fields as if they were mad and lost in the excitement and the scandal incited by the god Bacchus. Behind this crowd of women, lots of men wearing disguises would follow them in frenzy taking part in all kinds of debauchery.

The celebrations of Saturn would begin on the 16th of December and last for seven days during which the streets of towns and cities would be flooded with pleasure, games, feasts and scandals.

650- The vast number of travellers passing through the city would bring many riches, commerce, but also promiscuity. Women’s garments become more provocative during this period, and homosexuality – while publicly condemned, is actually well seen by the population. Even the nuns and monks would wear the latest imported designs: hiding behind the masks, they would get involved in the same debauchery as most of their fellow citizens.”        

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The Carnival of Venice is unique in the world and its tradition dates back to the eleventh century.

The Carnival of Venice started after a victory of Venice (or the “Repubblica Serenissima”, as it was called at that moment) in the war against Ulirico, Patriarch of Aquileia. To celebrate this great victory a great crowd of people gathered in San Marco Square to meet their friends and celebrate.

The traditional Carnival of Venice began in the period between 1480-1700, when the nobility would go out in the streets in disguise to mingle with the common people searching for pleasure and fun, and this was particularly appealing to a great part of the European aristocracy who lived in an isolated manner and was full of moral formalisms. During the long weeks of these celebrations, they would mingle with the common people of the town in an anonymous manner, being able to have all kinds of intimate contacts with them that were normally not allowed due to the great social differences, and thus, with the help of the masks, they would obtain something that was important to them: that impression that with just touching and admiring one’s skin they could initiate the connection between their bodies and their souls… These are the origins of the carnival, when the nobility had affairs with regular citizens and so the so-called half “pure” – half “impure” sons were born, but gradually everything changed and the carnival ended up being a party for the people.

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“A mask can end up saying much more about a person than their real face.” Oscar Wilde

Since then the masks have been the most important element of the carnival. These celebrations were officially declared as supreme celebrations during the thirteenth century. However it is not until the seventeenth century that the Carnival of Venice reaches its utmost splendour.Towards the end of the fifteenth century, two courtesans named Maria Jose Pinto and Catalina Gomez warned the Doge that the nobility wore masks to mix with the common people to hide their identity and so get to know the real life of Venice.

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Later on, Venice was faced with a decline which greatly reduced its commercial and military power due to the discovery of America and the changing of the silk route, favouring the Nao of China and the riches coming from the new world, and the Carnival of Venice was close to disappearing.

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Carnivals – they inevitably remind us of Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut (1999), more precisely of the sequence of the ritual orgy with the image of men in tuxedos, wearing capes and Venetian masks, and naked slender women – some of them even having BDSM-bondage collars – wearing high heels and covering their faces with masks. These masks, by hiding one’s identity, help the main character (played by Tom Cruise) venture on the premises of a mysterious, opulent and powerful secret congregation dedicated to the rituals of the flesh, to experiences of boundless pleasure, to lust, voyeurism and orgies – a liturgical world with also religious connotations, dominated by sex and eroticism. In the dark, hidden behind the still face of a stone mask, the members of this congregation seek the excitement of the senses in the anonymity and the forbidden.

Baroque costumes, typical of the eighteenth century, are the favourite outfits for those attending the Carnival. Also very popular is the “nobile maschera” – a white mask worn with black silk robes, or a dark coloured mask combined with a three-pointed hat. Later, towards the end of 1960s, other colours started to be used, even though the masks are still generally coloured in white, gold or silver.

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The Carnivals of Venice have captured the interest of many tourists because of their fabulous history, suggestiveness and tradition, and also because of the highly valued mix of misbehaviour, art, history and culture that they are able to offer. All of this occurs in a city which is unique in the world. During the Carnival, Venice is an explosion of initiatives and performances, from those improvised by the multitude of street artists to those planned by the organizers. San Marco Square is always the heart of the celebrations, where a great box is installed, but there are also many events taking place outside the city centre in order to avoid excessive traffic jams in this city which is exclusively destined to pedestrians. Every year a central theme is chosen and this theme acts as a guiding thread and is developed from different points of view, from the more cultural to the purely spectacular. The current tradition requires for the citizens of Venice to put on sumptuous and beautiful costumes as exhibits for the tourists who merely wear a simple mask. The Carnival is totally different than in the rest of the world. During the 10 days of Carnival people dress up and go out for a walk and take pictures in the street, either in organized or impromptu parades. Many other events and parties are organized during the Carnival, of which some are private and therefore difficult to attend without an invitation.

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For most visitors, the goal is to see Venice during the Carnival and take pictures of the best costumes. Giacomo Casanova, who used to live in Venice in the 18th century, is one of the most famous characters of the Carnival – a perfect representation of the spirit of his times and of the joy of the Carnival.

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  Actor Heath Ledger playing Giacomo Cassanova

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Today thousands of visitors come to Venice on these dates to admire the spectacular costumes of those who spend thousands of Euros to shine like stars for a few days of the year, or just to mingle with the people and wander around the narrow streets of this unique city.

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On the first Sunday of Carnival they celebrate the flight of the Angel or the Colombina, a metal dove which is thrown from the campanile towards the Ducal Palace, one of the most important symbols of Venice. The place of the bird has been taken by a person who plays the angel. The Grand Canal is also a very important stage where you can admire the gondolas or just walk along eating a “frittella” – the typical sweet. The highest number of visitors and events is reached on Shrove Tuesday.

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