Though it probably had much earlier roots, the Carnival in Venice was supposedly first recorded in 1296, when the Senate of the Republic issued an edict declaring the day before Lent as a public holiday. Much as in other cities, Medieval and Renaissance Venetians appear to have celebrated Carnival in several guises. On the one hand, it was an official festival, for the most part staged in Piazza San Marco, the Piazzetta, in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace, or out in the Bacino of San Marco – the basin adjoining the Molo. These events, especially during and after the sixteenth century, celebrated the founding and governing myths of the state – its tranquility, durability, prosperity, fairness, and piety. Some of these official festivities were violent – oxen and pigs were let loose in the Palace courtyard and then slaughtered – but they still conveyed the overarching theme of civic unity. On the other hand, a good deal of popular energy during Carnival was directed into group rivalries, between parishes or between large geographic factions that divided the city. These could be extremely violent at times, involving bull fights, the running of oxen or pigs down the streets, or mass brawls with sticks or fists, often on bridges.
By the seventeenth century the Carnival of Venice, like that of Rome, had become a regular attraction for tourists from Northern Europe – especially the so-called Grand Tourists: young aristocratic men who spent a year or more visiting the cultural attractions of Italy. Between 1600 to 1840 these visitors wrote literally hundreds of accounts of their visits to Italy, and many had something to say about the Carnival of Venice. It was claimed by some seventeenth-century guidebooks that upwards of 30,000 visitors would come to the city during the week before Ash Wednesday, along with around 10,000 prostitutes. Reading between the lines of what they wrote, it would seem that Grand Tourists came to the Carnival of Venice to (in ascending order of interest) dress in costume, see the opera, gamble in the state-licensed ridotti, and frequent the prostitutes. By the mid-eighteenth century it was also claimed (by those same Grand Tourists) that their contribution to the Venetian economy was so great that the Senate and Council of Ten could no longer afford to ban or restrict the festivities without risk of bankruptcy.
A case could be made that for most of the last two hundred years of the Venetian Republic, as the city’s hospitality infrastructure continually expanded, Carnival had become fundamentally a tourist event and no longer the sort of spontaneous, transgressive popular display that is associated today with places like Rio or Trinidad. When the Republic fell in 1797, Carnival was soon banned, and it remained forbidden throughout the Austrian occupation (1815-66). With reunification, however, an attempt was made to bring Carnival back, though according to the local newspaper (the Gazzetta di Venezia) it had lost much of its original participatory character, with the festivities attracting more spectators than celebrants. Much of the problem may have been the lack of tourist interest. For a few generations these officially sponsored events sputtered along, until the event was outlawed under those Fascist laws that forbade wearing a mask in public. For the next half century, the Carnival of Venice was a dress-up event for children’s parties.
The Carnival was reincarnated in early February 1979, when, according to the Gazzettino di Venezia (8 February 1979), some parents and civic leaders in the city decided to sponsor a more formal festival to substitute for the parties of teenagers, which many thought were getting too rowdy. This first iteration lasted only four days, and even many Venetians who were there at the time appear to have forgotten it was held that year. Most people remember instead the Carnival of next year, which some say was the only truly “Venetian” one ever held. Thanks to good weather and lots of planning, there were celebrations, miming, and music all over the city, including an enormous ball held in Piazza San Marco on Fat Tuesday -- and it was a ball almost entirely composed of locals. The festive displays and encounters were also almost exclusively put on by Venetians, operating with the motto, : Ma varda che poco che basta: Look how little you need! Then the tourists began to come.
By 1981, or 1983-84 at the latest, The Carnival of Venice had largely mutated to be A Carnival in Venice, with the city and its citizens playing an increasingly passive and background role for the tens, and then hundreds of thousands of tourists who showed up – more every year. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the numbers could actually be frightening -- around 800,000 for the entire 2002 Carnival season (now expanded to around three weeks) and nearly a million by 2004. Venice’s resident population, meanwhile, has dropped to just about 60,000. It has been estimated that 30,000 visitors coming to the city in one day are enough to make serious pedestrian traffic jams, and on Fat Saturday and Sunday over 120,000 regularly come. Since 2006, the number of visitors has dropped off somewhat, and there are other signs that the event’s attractions have begun to pale.