‘Clowns and fools  […] are characteristic of the medieval culture of humor. They were the constant, accredited representatives of the carnival spirit in everyday life out of carnival season. Like ‘Triboulet’ at the time of Francis I, they were not actors playing their parts on a stage, as did the comic actors of a later period, impersonating Harlequin [a character from commedia dell’arte] […] but remained fools always and wherever they made their appearance. As such they represented a certain form of life, which was real and ideal at the same time. They stood on a borderline between life and art, in a particular midzone as it were; they were neither eccentrics nor dolts, neither were they comic actors.’

‘Thus carnival is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter. It is a festive life. Festivity is a peculiar quality of all comic rituals and spectacles of the Middle Ages.’

[Quoted from Rabelais and his World by Mikhail Bakhtin]


Carnival History

“The Carnival in Venice is said to have originated from an important victory of the “Repubblica della Serenissima” [ Venice] in the war against Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia, in 1162. To celebrate this victory, dances and reunions started to take place in San Marco Square.

Of course,  due to the multicultural character of Venice, magicians and others joined the fun. Some for business, some for fun only”.

Salvatore Rosa 1856

Traditions of the Carnival in Venice

(Puppet Show)

Puppets shows and story-telling have always been very popular in all Italy through the centuries, and in Venice in particular during the Carnival.

But, as we see in this picture, this peculiar show is made mostly for attracting the crowds, put them together and at ease, and then starting to propose the sale of a “special balsam”, or a “long life elixir”, to suckers that might believe in these things.

“Col far balar da un Omo i buratini, 

E col mostrar sto privilegio antigo
El mio balsamo vendo ai babuini.”

The Charlatan:
“By making a puppet show
and showing this ancient entertainment
I sell my ointment to the suckers”

Gaetano Zompini: “Zaratan” – (1785)


The Mattasin (Mattaccino in Italian – also known as “frombolatore”, because of the sling he used to carry around) is one of the wildest impersonations of the Carnival.

The name comes from the Italian word “mattinate” (mornings), going long hours, until morning, having fun. With a white or multicolored dress, but simple and practical (as opposed to the traditional classy heavy costumes) and a feathered hat, here comes the Mattasin.

Fun loving, irreverent, with the sling ready for throwing eggs in distance, going around in groups, disapproved by the majority, wild and contemptuous.

“Bella, se voi d’Amor mi date il fiore
Vi dono due sonagli di buon core.”

“Sweetheart, if you will give me the flower of love,
I will give you two rattles, out of my good heart”

BAUTA (Bautta)

The Bauta is to be considered the traditional venitian mask, the one mostly used to cover your features, made in a way that it is still possible to eat and drink without having to take it off.

The Bauta is always white, and it is not only a Carnival mask, in the sense in those times it could also be used all year long, to protect one’s identity. It consisted not only of the mask covering the face, but the finely woven lace, and the black hat with three tips (tricorno).

The name bauta does not have up to now, a definite interpretation: it may came from the German “behüten“(to protect), as well as from “bau” (or “babau“), typical Italian representation of the monster, or bad beast, used by adults to scare children:
Se non stai bravo viene il babau e ti porta via …
(if you do not behave, the babau will come over and take you away …)”

In a way, the Bauta was some kind of a social leveler. All ages, all social statuses could get together, all of them wearing a mask and concealing their true identity.

It was mandatory all year long for women who went to the theater and forbidden to girls waiting to be married.

Giovanni Grevembroch – “Mascare” – (18th century)

(The Savage Man)

Also found in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the idea of this simple disguise (rough clothes, sometimes with fur, leaves in the hair, a club held in his belt appearing in contraposition with the delicate “classic” disguises of the noblemen.

The Homo Salvaticus of course is savage in the way he is loud, groups easily, plays any sort of jokes at other people’s expenses.

“Magnus ludum de quodam 

homine salvatico”

“More fun than everybody else
has the savage man”

Pietro Bertelli: “Mussicha usata da mascare in Venettia il Carneuale” – engraving (1642)

(Scented Eggs)

Carnival has always been a way of flirting, getting sexes together.

One way of courting (making passes at) women was the unusual throwing of eggs filled up with rose water. And it became a trend.

Merchants were selling different kinds of perfumed eggs, and young masked men were going around town, showing their appreciation for the ladies they liked most, throwing these perfumed eggs in front of their houses.

Of course the joke could get wild, so eggs also went toward the spectators, the ladies’ husbands, and finally to the ladies themselves …

These “eggs throwing masks” were also known as Mattaccino or Frombolatore (from the frombola, the sling).

Pietro Bertelli: “Mascare usate in Venetia che Tirano Ovi odoriferi” – engraving (1642)


Mysterious and intriguing: these are the reasons of so much success of this mask, the so called Moretta (meaning “Dark”, because of its color).

Used by women only, the mask was kept in place by a button, held by the front teeth. Rather uncomfortable for sure, but that’s the way fashion has always been.

The forced silence of such women especially pleased the male counterpart … 

Giovanni Grevembroch: “Mascara” – (18th century)

(Man disguised as a woman)

CARNIVAL is also transvestitism, appearing in different clothes, different personality. No exception in Venice. Men in women’s clothing, usually. The most vulgar as a joke, the better the tease for everybody.

At times the Gnagas were going around the city carrying with them young babies, or accompanied by other men dressed as infants, to make the tease even more exaggerated.

The name Gnaga seems to have derived from “gnao”, the meowing of the cat.

Giovanni Grevembroch: “Gnaga” – watercolor – (18th century)

(Acrobatic Masks)

Which puts together the transvestitism and the popular fun life of the circus.

Very interesting is the earlier form of ice skates, made for skating on the iced lagoon channels, thus giving us a good indication of the kind of weather to be expected in Venice during Carnival in those days.

Giovanni Grevembroch: “Uomo agile”
watercolor – (18th century)

Giovanni Grevembroch: “Uomo agile”
watercolor – (18th century)

( Wheel Barrow Parade)

Probably wild Carnival entertainment opposed to the gondolas parades and the big Grand Canal boat procession, with the Doge leading it all.

No masks, simple clothes, servant’s hat. A wild guess is that the Wheel Barrow Parade was probably an ironic, lower classes joking competition.

Giovanni Grevembroch: “Regata di carriole”
watercolor – (18th century)


‘[Medieval]  forms of carnival were also linked externally to feasts of the Church. (One carnival did not coincide with any commemoration of sacred history or of a saint but marked the last days before Lent […]. Even more significant is the genetic link of these carnivals with ancient pagan festivities, agrarian in nature, which included some comic element in their rituals’.

‘[…] During the century-long development of medieval carnival, prepared by thousands of years of ancient comic ritual, including the primitive Saturnalias, a speclial idiom of forms and symbols was evolved- an extremely rich idiom that expressed the unique yet complex carnival experience of the people.This experience, opposed to all that was ready-made and completed, to all pretense at immutability, sought a dynamic expression; it demanded ever changing, playful, undefined forms. All the symbols of carnival are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity  of prevailing truths and authorities. We find here a characteristic logic,  the peculiar logic of the ‘inside out’ […], of  a carnival shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings [the comic crowning of a ‘Lord of Misrule’].’

 [One such ancient pagan festivity was Saturnalia]:
Saturnalia was introduced around 217 BC to raise citizen morale after a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians.[2] Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17, its popularity saw it grow until it became a week-long extravaganza, ending on the 23rd. Efforts to shorten the celebration were unsuccessful. Augustus tried to reduce it to three days, and Caligula to five. These attempts caused uproar and massive revolts among the Roman citizens.Saturnalia involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately. The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia),and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves.
The toga was not worn, but rather the synthesis, i.e. colourful, informal “dinner clothes”; and the pileus (freedman’s hat) was worn by everyone. Slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with (a pretense of) respect. The slaves celebrated a banquet: before, with, or served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was mostly superficial; the banquet, for example, would often be prepared by the slaves, and they would prepare their masters’ dinner as well. It was license within careful boundaries; it reversed the social order without subverting it]
‘[…] The feast is always essentially related to time, either to the recurrence of an event in the natural (cosmic) cycle, or to a biological or historic timeliness. Moreover, through all the stages of historic development feasts were linked to moments of crisis, of breaking points in the cycle of nature or in the life of society and man. Moments of death and revival, of change and renewal always led to a festive perception of the world. These moments, expressed in concrete form, created the peculiar character of the feast.’
‘In the framework of Medieval class and feudal political structure this specific character could be realized without distortion only in the carnival and in similar marketplace festivals. They were the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abudance. [Carnival life is a parody of extracarnival life. Carnival is a world- turned -upside -down. Its laughter is not individual.]
‘Laughter is the laughter of all the people […] it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival’s participants. The entire world is seen in its droll aspect, in its gay relativity […] this laughter is ambivalent: it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives.’
[The cited above is from the Introduction to ‘Rabelais and His World’ by Mikhail Bakhtin, trans. by Iswolsky. It was first published in Russian in 1965.]
This next I placed here simply so that three great Russian ballerinas could be seen in succession.
Finally,  Sotheby’s will be auctioning a carnival ring on December 14, 2011:

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