The Venice Carnival, Casanova and the Plague Doctor

The Story of Carnival

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Carnival have ancient origin dating as far back as 4000 years.

The earliest reference to ‘Carnevale’ is to be found in a document where the word is used for the first time by the Doge in 1094. During the period which usually lasted from 26 December to Ash Wednesday, Venetians thronged the streets to celebrate, wearing masks and costumes. Very often however the celebrations started as early as October.

Etymologically the world “carnevale” derives from the Latin: ‘carnem levare’, popularly translated as ‘carnevale’ or ‘carnasciale’, because originally it referred to the final meat (carne) banquet which would be held just before the period of abstinence and Lent fasting.

Carnival end on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, or 40 days before Easter, when Lent begins.


Carnival has always represent a ‘folk celebration’.

In those times there was a climate of wide-spread partying in which the poor and rich alike disguised in masks could mingle in the streets and squares, a period during which class and gender distinctions were relaxed. In such a climate the mask offered the sole opportunity of distinguishing oneself further or to be considered everyone’s equal, in a heterogeneous society with strong social barriers.

The mask offered anonymous licence and at certain times in history was over-used. To such a degree that the wearing of masks became a status symbol and the Venetian Republic was obliged to pass specific and prohibitive decrees.

So Carnival, a cultural phenomenon present in many societies, acquired a separate and special meaning. It represented here an ‘excuse’ to disguise oneself and take part in the worldly, festive atmosphere of the city.

That is why carnival in Venice ended up lasting for several months.

The real Venetian mask is the bautta which could only have developed in this city. While elsewhere the mask represented a personality or state of mind, here it served only to hide.

A mask designed to this end had to be inexpressive, anonymous and functional.

The bautta is made up of a cloak (tabarro), a lace cape and a black silk hood (zendale), a three-pointed hat (tricorno) and over the face a white mask (called a ‘larva’, which word derives from the latin and was used when referring to ghosts and spectral masks) which guaranteed anonymity.

The ‘Plague Doctor’s mask is not a traditional Carnival one, rather it was used to protect the wearer from the terrible pestilence which struck Venice in 1630. The doctors wore it with a black cloak and gloves, filling the ‘becco’ (beak) with spices and medicinal herbs to neutralise the infectious germs of the plague. Later on in the Venetian Carnival ritual, this mask assumed the purging qualities of a lucky charm against contagious disease.

The official Carnival ended in 1797, when Venice was handed over to Austria with the Treaty of Campoformio, which suppressed many customs in order to quell rebellion on the part of the people. Only the magnificent private banquets held in palaces survived until the mid-19th century but there is no more evidence even of these after the union of Venice with the Kingdom of Italy.

In 1979 several associations brought back to life a tradition that had been all but abandoned and that had seen Venice at the height of her (albeit decadent) splendor during the 18th century. From then on it became a major Venetian tourist event and thousands of people from all over the world have flocked to the lagoon to celebrate the world of carnival in a unique way for the 10 days preceding Ash Wednesday.


Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born in Venice on April 2, 1725 and was an adventurer, writer, philosopher, secret agent, 

curious person about the most varied aspects of life. Famous remains his “Histoire de ma vie”, an autobiographical book, in which all his adventures and countless chivalrous and ceremonial encounters with women are described.

It is precisely for this last aspect that his fame has spanned centuries, so much so that “casanova” has become a male noun in the Italian language that indicates a man dedicated to love adventures and a seducer without scruples.

He was, of course, a great protagonist of the 18th century Venetian Carnival and it seems that he loved to wear the mask of the Bauta.

The latter was one of the most loved masks by Venetians and was worn by both men and women, at any time of the year when they wanted to conceal their identity.

This mask was so pleasing because it covered only the eyes and nose, and widening to the level of the mouth allowed to eat and drink without having to take it off and the wide tabarro allowed lovers to make love in any calle (street), among the shadows of the palaces.

The Plague Doctor

The mask of the Plague Doctor is not a traditional Carnival mask, it was used to defend itself from the terrible plague that struck Venice in 1630.

According to the erroneous beliefs of the time, it was believed that the contagion occurred through bad smells and this mask would have prevented the doctors from getting infected.

The mask had two openings for the eyes, covered with glass lenses, and two holes on the large curved nose, inside of which were contained cotton or rags soaked in various perfumed substances.

The doctors wore it with a black cloak and gloves, shoes and wide-brimmed hat to be safe and invincible against the disease. An equally important accessory was the cane, used to visit patients and to undress them.

Later this mask acquired in the ritual of the Venetian carnival, a superstitious and exorcistic significance in the face of contagious disease.

It seems almost superfluous to say how much this epidemic has affected psychologically to the population decimated by plague. So the surviving Venetians felt grateful to their God for watching over them and the city in a time of chaos and despair. At that time they wanted to erect two churches around which they organized two festivities that are still today the most important celebrations of the city of Venice.

Dottore della peste

The Church of the Holy Redeemer erected in 1577 to honor a vow made during the terrible plague that begin in 1575. The work, commissioned to Andrea Palladio, represents one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance and was completed after the death of the famous architect (1580) by Antonio da Ponte, who faithfully respected Palladio’s project. It is located on the island of Giudecca and the promise was made that every year, on the day the city was declared free from the scourge, a procession would be held to the new votive church.

The procession takes place on the third Sunday of July and for the occasion a long votive bridge of boats is opened on the Giudecca Canal, connecting the island with the Fondamenta delle Zattere, thus allowing the pedestrian reach of the Church of the Redeemer. During the night between Saturday and Sunday there is a great fireworks display on St. Mark’s Basin and three typical Venetian boat races organized the following day, attracting a large public from all over the world.

The Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute was also erected following an ex voto to the Madonna by the Venetians for the liberation from the plague that decimated the population between 1630 and 1631, as had happened before. The basilica overlooks the Punta della Dogana area and is clearly visible in the panorama of St. Mark’s Basin, designed by Baldassare Longhena. It is one of the most successful representations of Venetian Baroque architecture. Every year, on November 21, a pilgrimage to this church, which remains open all day, is made through a wooden movable bridge, erected on the Grand Canal, which connects Punta della Dogana with Santa Maria del Giglio. The faithful can light a candle to the Virgin Mary and pray in a place imbued with history and hope.