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Bemasked odalisques in Venice Carnivale 2014

The Venetian propensity for hiding behind masks was legendary: a rigid caste system coupled with ample opportunities for indulging in a host of vices made anonymity very desirable in an overcrowded city where detection was otherwise unavoidable. In the 13th century a law was passed banning masks while gambling. Later norms made it illegal to make masked visits to convents, or to wear masks during many religious festivals.

In the end, it was easier to stipulate when masks could be worn: most importantly, in a crescendo of frantic merry making, from Boxing Day until Shrove Tuesday - the period known as Carnevale (from carnem and vale, Latin for "meat" and "farewell": a reference to the Church’s ban on eating meat during Lent). The French stamped out the festivities when they took command of the city in 1797. And so it remained until 1979 when it dawned on local authorities that a revamped Carnevale would boost tourism in the city at a quiet, damp, misty time of year. The festival now lasts for two weeks in the run-up to Lent.

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