It may have been weeks since Carnival finished yet a wander through the streets of Venice and it almost seems as though the city is very much still in the throws of Carnevale.
Multi-coloured confetti lies strewn across the ground, the shops continue to sell and rent their costumes, and vendors across the town are still dressed up in their carnival attire, selling and advertising carnival-inspired events.The official Carnevale activities may be over but in reality it would seem that Carnival never really ends in Venice. It is after all the ultimate of tourism draws, not that Venice is in need of another tourism draw. The city itself is a tourism magnet.
Carnevele, however, is even bigger business for Venice’s hotels, restaurants, and event organisers than the regular Venetian tourist activities, with the city making a very healthy income from its carnival-esque goings on.
It’s no secret that the locals don’t like carnival (or the majority of tourists, for that matter), but love it or loathe it, carnival is a huge earner and helps keen the town afloat (pun intended). But carnival wasn’t always the commercial entity that it is today. In fact, carnival has come a long way from its original festivities and its current commercialisation is just another face of the multi-faceted tradition that is carnival.
Beginning in the 1000s, the purpose of carnival has changed over the years, moulding itself as the answer to whatever pressing religious, sociological or societal issue that was current at the time. Its original function was religious – the church providing the Venetians with an opportunity to compartmentalise their licentious, coquettish, and irreligious behaviour within a closed period of time, to get their sordid behaviour out of their system so they would spend the rest of the year being good Christian citizens.
Then with the rise of societal discord caused by the wide class margins, carnival evolved as a means to break down class divisions and lessen community tensions. The quintessential carnival mask became the means in which to hide who, and what class, one was, so that everyone was equal during carnival regardless of where you came from and how much money you had.
During the ravages of plague, carnival became an expression of decadence and pleasure, to lose oneself and ones pain of such death and disease. During the Renaissance it was the epitome of prestige and carnival was the opportunity to showcase ones wealth and status.
And today? Today carnival is for the tourists. Its commercialisation has grown out of the need for the city to make money through its tourists, given the sharp decrease of any other type of economy in Venice. Tourism is the last type of industry in La Serenissima, and without it who knows how the city would survive.
That being said, the carnival of today still has the essence of the prestige and status associated with the Renaissance version of the carnival. Take for example an evening ball laid on during Carnevale, where tickets cost in the region of £800 and above. This isn’t exactly affordable for the average joe. The audience may be more tourist-focussed but the essence of Carnevale hasn’t – it’s decadent fun.
For the tourists among us who can’t afford an extravagant evening ball in a Grand Canal palazzo, we have to console ourselves with hiring a basic carnival costume, or for many others, making our own, and cavorting about San Marco for a couple of hours in the bitter February cold posing for photos.
And that’s perhaps the one thing that’s never changed about carnival – the cold winter wind off the Adriatic!