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Carnaval Around the World

© Masqueraders in Gondola, Venice, Italy 1998 Photograph by David and Shirley Rowen

Carnevale began in the ancient port city of Venice in the Middle Ages when the great squares of the city were turned over to aristocratic pageantry, public sport competitions, and performances by roving minstrels and actors. For a few hundred years the Carnival in Venice grew and flourished with more and more elaborate costumes and lavish events. Political and religious reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries eventually curbed the excesses of this festival. By the early 20th century Venice Carnival had stopped being celebrated altogether.

In 1981 city officials decided to revive Venice Carnival as a reincarnation of the aristocratic festival it had once been. Characters from the 16th, 17th , and 18th -century Italian theater reappeared on the streets, along with masqueraders portraying counts and countesses and other legendary figures. Today Venice carnevale is open to everyone and participants come from many countries and a range of social backgrounds to take on the identity of classical personages and a variety of fantasy characters. Some pay to have elaborate outfits made for them, others create their own, but many participants rent their costumes for a few brief hours. The masqueraders slowly make their way through the narrow streets of Venice and across the bridges wrapped in a thin layer of fog. Others ride through the canals in gondolas decorated for the festive occasion.

Venice, Italy 1993
Photograph by David and Shirley Rowen

Some of the masquerades worn in Venice Carnival today are characters from the famous 16th and 17th -century Italian theater, commedia dell'arte. Arlecchino (Harlequin) played the role of a faithful valet - patient, trusting, passionate, and playful. His costume is decorated with brightly colored triangles and diamonds and his black half mask has tiny eyeholes and quizzically arched eyebrows accentuated by a wrinkled forehead.

© Doctor of the Plague Masqueraders in an Outdoor Market,
Venice, Italy 1991
Photograph by David and Shirley Rowen

The Doctor of the Plague masquerade features a white mask with a long beak and spectacles, a black cape, collar, hat, white gloves, and stick. The origin of this costume can be traced to a 16th -century French doctor, Charles de Lorme, who adopted bizarre sanitary precautions before visiting patients infected with the plague. Dressed in a doctor's outfit, he wore a mask with a long, bird-like nose filled with herbs and other perfumes to protect him from the contagious disease. He also carried a stick so he didn't need to touch the patients with his own hands.

© Group of Masqueraders Posing for the Cameras,
Venice, Italy 1997
Photograph by David and Shirley Rowen

Today Venice carnevale lasts for a two-week period leading up to Lent. During this time, hundreds of thousands of people come from all over the world to enjoy the celebration. For many it is an annual pilgrimage and much of the year is spent in preparing their elaborate masquerades. Showing off a costume against the backdrop of Venetian architecture and posing for photographers is part of Carnival play in Venice.

© Masqueraders in the Piazza de San Marcos,
Venice, Italy 1990
Photograph by David and Shirley Rowen

The large piazza in front of the church of St. Mark serves as center stage for many Venetian Carnival activities, including processions where masqueraders compete with one another for the most authentic or eccentric creations. The historic costumes range from 17th -century Asian and Venetian merchants to 18th -century counts and countesses.

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