The Party Behind the Masks

As a Catholic, every year before the start of Lent I begin to wonder what I should give up during the forty days prior to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Last year, I went vegetarian for the Lenten season, and the year before I went without any soda or ice cream. Although I do not eat meat on Fridays, the traditional sacrifice among Catholics, I have always tried to supplement this action by giving up something else. This year, however, I am finding it very difficult to decide what to give up. What could I possibly surrender when my diet primarily consists of my three favorite food groups: pasta, cheese, bread?

As of right now, I have to yet to pinpoint exactly what I will be bravely forgoing during the next forty days. Forfeiting meat all together is out of the question because meat is a constant fixture of il secondo piatto at Flavia’s dinner table. (Like the Greek mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who wants to serve her daughter’s vegetarian fiancée lamb, Flavia actually asked me if it bacon was an exception to the no meat on Friday rule; I firmly shook my head no.) Considering that I also eat pasta at least once a day, it would be impossible to give it up without starving myself in the process. Sure, I could give up dessert, but the idea of forfeiting tiramisu, Nutella, and chocolate salami is very hard to swallow. How does one begin to know how to sacrifice when in a country with such bounty and excitement like Italy?

For Italians, preparation for the Lenten season of sacrifice embodies itself in an all-out celebration of sinfulness and debauchery through the celebration at Carnevale. Carnevale is derived from two Latin words, carnem meaning meat and levare, to take away. Because Catholic Italians are expected to give up meat, or something just as fulfilling, as a testament to their faith, many revel in the festivities of Carnevale before Ash Wednesday officially welcomes La Quaresima. Throughout the country, there are various celebrations for carnival, such as in Viareggio and Milan, but there is none more famous than that in the city of Venice.

As a city built on water, there is no city more enchanting that the capital of the region of Veneto. With its exquisite location and its accompanying beauty, Venice is the perfect setting to throw a grand party. Officially the festivities of Carnevale began February 26 and continue until tomorrow, il giovedì grasso, or Fat Tuesday. This year’s Venetian theme is Ottocento-Da Senso a Sissi-La città delle donne, and is dedicated to the unification of the Italy and Women’s Day, which coincidentally falls on Carnevale’s conclusion, March 8. With more than two weeks to celebrate, partygoers have plenty of time to indulge before succumbing to Lenten sacrifice and prayer.

Traveling to Venice for Carnevale is one of those things that everyone has on their bucket list, so last weekend I ventured to the city of canals to cross it off my own list of things to do before I die. After a two-hour train ride from Florence, I arrived in Venice Friday evening to revel in the merriment of Carnevale’s final days. Immediately, it was off the train and onto the streets to roam the city that many people fear may one day sink into the Adriatic Sea. To navigate the “City of Water,” the options are limited. Walking is the easiest way to get from place to place, but it also remains the longest and more fatiguing. For those less inclined to use their feet, water taxis and the globally-renown gondolas can provide transport from point A to point B. Although I would have loved to give my feet a break and ride in one of the gondolas, my wallet told me otherwise, and thus I explored the city with the tools God gave me.

Walking around the city proved to be a wonderful and eye-opening experience. Had I taken a water taxi immediately over to the Piazza of San Marco on the opposite end of the island, I never would have seen all the beautiful, and sometimes strange, costumes of the Carnevale revelers. After two Halloweens at Georgetown, I thought college students were the most innovative at dressing up, but Venetians far surpassed my peers on the Hilltop. During the course of my two days in the Floating City, I saw Neptune, Alice in Wonderland and company, a plethora of regal costumes, and too many more to recount. Carnevale is essentially a non-stop costume party that lasts eleven days straight; there was enough glitter and feathers to leave a permanent trail on the streets of Venice until next year’s carnival!

While costumes are a definite staple of the annual festival, the most famous tradition of the Venetian Carnevale is the wearing of masks. The tradition of the masks began as a way for all citizens to shield their identities and social class as they celebrated with their peers during Carnival. The city’s mask-makers, i mascherai, have been hand-carving and casting masks for centuries, and many of the more traditional masks are made from Italian leather or carefully constructed using a special glass technique. Although the costumes were stunning to admire, the beauty and elaborate details of the masks made me speechless each time someone passed me by. Of course, I could not be in Venice without buying a mask, but my student budget did not allow for anything nearly as detailed or outrageous as the majority of those I saw in shops or on the faces amidst the crowd. Still, so long as it makes it home in one piece, I will forever have proof of my Venetian weekend during Carnevale.

While I can imagine that a large number of participants at Carnevale do not remember their experience because of excessiveness merriment, the memories of this past weekend continue to replay in my head. It seems that every time I close my eyes another sophisticated costume or ornate mask overwhelms my consciousness. Carnevale was an adventure unlike anything I have ever experience; a non-stop costume party, an endless path of confetti and glitter, an excuse to drink wine before the clock strikes noon. Though Carnevale was an eleven days of fun, the future forty days are a time of great reflection and spirituality. Unfortunately for me, remembering the great fun I had this weekend makes it even more now difficult to think about what it is that I should sacrifice this season of Lent…

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2 thoughts on “The Party Behind the Masks

  1. Wow ! Such an exciting time to be in Venezia. I share your passion for the Italian way of life, and the beauty of this amazing country. Thanks for sharing your travels. My mom and I have been following your marvelous stories that bring us back to our memorable vacations in the old country. Ciao bella, Bethany !

  2. Pingback: 2011: A Year in Review | Le Colline e La Città

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