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Masquerade Ball History

A History of the Masquerade Ball


The earliest mention of a Carnival celebration is recorded in a 12th century Roman account of the pope and upper class Roman citizens watching a parade through the city, followed by the killing of steers and other animals. The purpose was to play and eat meat before Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Catholic Lent - the forty-day fast leading up to Easter. The Latin term carnem-levare - to remove oneself from flesh or meat - was used to refer to the festival.

The pre-Lenten celebration grew in popularity over the next few centuries, spreading to other European cities and rural communities. Italians eventually shortened the name to Carnevale -flesh farewell - and the word was translated into Spanish and Portuguese as Carnaval, into English as Carnival, and into German as Karneval.     

By the 15th and 16th centuries Carnival had become a rowdy tradition featuring boisterous games and masquerades adopted from a variety of late winter and early spring festive practices with pre-Christian roots. This was a time for ritual and play. By engaging in irony, disguise, laughter, and revelry, people sought renewal and growth for themselves and their communities. The political and industrial revolutions of the 19th century had a significant effect on Carnival celebrations on all three continents. As the festivities began to be viewed as civic events by newly formed governments, urban street parades became more structured. Groups from different neighborhoods and workers' guilds competed with one another for the best performances.

The Italian version, 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 Carnevale 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 Carnevale had stopped being celebrated altogether.

In 1981 city officials decided to revive Venice Carnevale 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.

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. 

The large piazza in front of the church of St. Mark serves as center stage for many Venetian Carnevale 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.

Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetian Carnevale; traditionally people were allowed to wear them 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. Mask makers (mascareri) enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild.

Origins of Carnevale Masks


Commedia dell'Arte masks are based on traditional characters like Harlequin. With its origins in Renaissance Italy (early 16th Century) the Commedia dell'Arte was one of the earliest forms of theatre as we know it today, starting with street performers donning masks to draw attention to themselves.

Fantasy masks are creations of the mask makers’ imagination, although they may be inspired by historical designs and are often elaborately decorated with fabrics and feathers.

Traditional Venetian masks such as the white Volto half-mask with its nose cover and its variant, the Plague Doctor's mask with its phallic beak. According to tradition, the beak was intended to protect the wearer from being infected by the plague.


Information from Venetian Masquerade Ball. Presented by The Catering Research Institute, The NationalAssociation of Catering Executives, and the Foundation of NAC. Retrieved from http://www.hrm.uh.edu/docs/CRI/Venetian%20Masquerade%20Ball.pdf

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