Hundreds of years ago, in what is now Venice and its hinterland, in a fight between feudal lords, the Serenissima Republic won an important battle over Ulrico. As part of the symbolism surrounding the defeat, the losing side was made to send a bull and 12 fattened pigs to the victor every year. Needless to say, the animals met a gory end and were made unwilling participants of a feast that developed into the Venice carnival.
Year on year, this carnival continued till it became a time of joyous celebration for the Venetians. In fact there is much evidence on record to show that the carnival of eating and merry making often descended the depths of debauchery and much else besides. The oldest document on record about the carnival is dated 2nd May 1268. It specifically mentions the things that masked revelers must not do during the carnival. Life was certainly not much fun then!
In fact, things seem to have reached a limit in the 14th and 15th centuries. So much so that Venice promulgated laws that prohibited menfolk from entering convents dressed in masks and banned wearing masks at night. Failure to follow the laws meant a minimum of two years in jail, a fine of 500 lire and 18 months of rowing a galley as a slave - phew! You were somewhat better off if you were a woman. You only got whipped all the way from St Mark's Square to the Rialto!
How many survived this kind of treatment is not recorded, but I doubt if many did!
It was only in the 18th century that masks were allowed again. Even then with a lot of restrictions. You could not wear a mask to the casino, wearing it to a convent was taboo and wearing it in a church was quite out of question. Today, however, the mask is symbol of Venice itself and is probably one of the most exported curios. A mask is certainly a must have curio that every tourist invariably buys.
The carnival ends just as Lent begins. The last day of the carnival marks a major change in Venice. You cannot imagine that just a day ago the city was filled with celebrating tourists and locals, all in the best of finery, dancing and walking in the streets showing off their masks.
You are of course a little late for this year's carnival. But if you like to plan early, you can book your flight to Venice for 25 Jan 2008 and plan to return on 5 Feb 2008. That is when the next carnival is slated. Revel in the carnival mood until then.