The Carnival of Venice begins tomorrow! Click here for more info on events and travel resources etc. The following is a piece by our blog master, Jeremy Parzen, a scholar of Italian literature specialized in the history of the Italian language. Enjoy!
No one knows the true origins of the Carnevale of Venice.
We do know that the festival began in the high middle ages, probably in the 1100s.
And it’s likely that its beginnings were related to ancient pagan traditions that called for a time of feasting when winter ended and the hard work of spring began.
Those same traditions later expressed themselves in Judeo-Chirstian rituals.
The Passover, for example, was a spring festival that can probably trace its roots to a pagan celebration of spring.
Easter is the Christian expression of that same tradition: Jesus’ Last Supper, it is widely believed, was a Passover seder.
The Carnevale always ends on Strove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
For Christians, Lent is a period when “something is given up,” a time when many devout Christians fast and in the case of practicing Catholics, they give up the consumption of meat.
For this reason, many believe that the name Carnevale is derived from or is a corruption of the Latin carnem levare, literally, the removing of flesh [meat], although no hard evidence exists to support this claim, however likely it may be.
The fact that many Christians give up meat for Lent on the day after the conclusion of Carnevale is probably what gave us the expression, mardi gras in French, martedì grasso in Italian, or fat Tuesday in English.
Many believe that the word grasso refers to our own fat (as a result of consumption). In fact, in Renaissance parlance, “feast” days when meat could be consumed where called grasso days, while “fast” days where referred to as magro or “lean” days. (The Maestro Martino Renaissance cookery book [circa 1450], which I translated for University of California Press in 2005, has scores of “grasso” recipes and “magro” recipes; the latter are mostly vegetarian dishes that masquerade as meat dishes.)
However distantly related, the Mardi Gras of New Orleans has its roots in this tradition.
It’s important to remember that during the middle ages and the Renaissance, when the Carnevale became an officially sanctioned festival of Venice, Catholics had rigid dietary laws that restricted the days of the year when meat could be consumed. Most scholars concur that the Carnevale was originally conceived as a celebration of indulgence and excess to be held before Lent called for abstinence.
It’s also important to remember that Venice, historically, was widely known as a city of indulgence and excess. By the time the Carnevale was embraced as an official festival by the patricians of Venice, the lagoonal city was the prostitution and gambling capital of Europe — the Las Vegas of its day.
With this in mind, it’s not a stretch to view the Mardi Gras of New Orleans as a direct descendant of the original Carnevale.
We’ll probably never know the exact origins of the Carnevale or the name itself. But that’s part of the mystique and mystery of Carnevale that makes it so fascinating for us.
Carnevale image via SergeSegal’s Flickr (Creative Commons).