Donning colorful painted masks and cloaks is an ancient pastime in Venice, a city that seems to float upon the sea. The annual Carnival of Venice takes place over about a week and half, with its last day on Mardi Gras Tuesday, though throughout history the festival has varied in length, at times lasting for months.

Well-known for its lavish costumes and decorated masks, these were not part of the Carnival when it began. The origins of the festivities can be traced back to the 12th century, but it was not until 1268 that the first documented use of masks, now the event’s trademark, occurred. Carnival, from the phrase carne vale meaning “farewell to meat,” came about as a last hurrah before Lent, when people gave up their indulgences.

The height of Carnival revelry was in the 17th and 18th centuries, when all kinds of people from the poor commoner to the aristocrats mingled, safe behind their disguises. Gambling, partying, acrobatic shows, drinking, dancing and general wild behavior continued for half the year, and the city’s reputation as a place where anything goes spread across Europe.

Not everyone was pleased with the activities associated with the masked extravaganza. The decline of Carnival began when Napoleon claimed the area and continued on through Mussolini’s banning of public mask wearing.

In 1979, however, Venice resurrected its traditional masquerade. People come from all over to participate in the vibrant celebration. Today, shops around the city still make and sell the distinctive masks and Venetians and tourists alike enjoy parades filled with elaborate costumes, concerts and theatrical performances, dancing, yummy treats and fireworks.

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