Carnival of Venice (or Carnevale di Venezia in Italian) was first recorded in 1268 and was followed by many others until the fall of the Venetian Serenissima Republic in 1798. Venetian Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetian Carnival. Traditionally people were allowed to wear masks between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day, December 26) at the start of the carnival season and midnight of Shrove Tuesday. As masks were also allowed during Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas, people could spend a large proportion of the year in disguise. Unfortunately, some individuals took illegal advantage of being unrecognizable to perform acts of violence, theft and prostitution. This subversive nature of the festival caused many laws created over the centuries in Italy attempting to restrict celebrations and often banning the wearing of masks.
Through the Carnival Venetian Mask-makers (or Mascherari in Italian) enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild.
In 1797 Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio. The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798 and it fell into a decline which also effectively brought Venetian Carnival celebrations to a halt for almost two centuries.
Venetian Carnival was outlawed by the fascist government in the 1930s but was not fully reborn until 1979 when a group of enthusiasts attempted to revive Venetian Carnival in the same spirit that provokes American historical societies to organize mock battles on Independence Day or to stage charity balls with Victorian costumes and themes. The modern-day merchants of Venice quickly recognized the economic potential of this event, and a new Venetian Carnival was born.
Today the famous Venetian Carnival starts on February 2nd and ends on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. Venetian Carnival re-creates the fantasy of the original event with food, costumes, Venetian masks, music, Commedia Dell’Arte Theater, juggling and other spectacles. The Venetian masks and costumes are worn by people who often travel from all over the world to attend and perform (or parade) on renewed Venetian Carnival in magnificent city on the water, Venice. The elaborate costumes and masks are handmade by variety of Venetian and foreign artisans. Many involve male and female or group versions and are based on old Venetian characters and costumes such as Bauta, Colombina, Dama, Gatto, Jester, Jolly, Volto, Zanni, and others.
In the US, the local version of Venetian Carnival is held annually on the third weekend of July in St. Joseph, Michigan, a small town on the coast of Lake Michigan in southwest Michigan. It started in 1979, and has grown from a handful of people to nearly 200,000 visitors since its inception. Once a two-day event on Friday and Saturday, this festival now runs from Thursday through Sunday and features an expanding variety of sights, sounds, and tastes, including among them contests, Venetian masks and costumes parade, food, music, fireworks, a lighted boat parade, and a Carnival.
Another Venetian Carnival is held in Charlevoix, Michigan and started in 1930.