Venice Carnival from the Middle Ages to the Twenty- First Century

A Political Ritual Turned “Consumer Rite”?


  • Gilles Bertrand Université Grenoble Alpes



Venice, Carnival, Republic, Masks, Social Cohesion, Civic Ritual, Commodification


As with other carnivals around the world, the history of the Venetian Carnival sheds light on the complex dialectic between festivity and politics and more particularly on the growing need for political authorities to control the urban environment. This article provides a longue durée approach to carnival in Venice and unpacks the meaning of its successive metamorphoses. During the Middle Ages, Venetians used carnival as a defense strategy for their city, intended to ensure the cohesion of its various neighborhoods around a common destiny. In the fifteenth century, the legacy of public festivals for both rich and poor gave way to a more official celebration, which allowed Venice to outdo its European rivals. The civilized and policed expressions that were elaborated from the Renaissance until the eighteenth century gradually set Venetian Carnival apart from the exuberance and invertibility displayed by rustic carnivals in other parts of Europe. However watered-down and commodified present-day Venetian Carnival may seem, it continues to raise eminently political issues, most of which have to do with the appropriation of public space by private interests and the recreation of traditions for mass consumption.

Author Biography

Gilles Bertrand, Université Grenoble Alpes

Gilles Bertrand is professor of early modern history at the University of Grenoble Alpes, France, and works on Italy from a cultural history perspective. He has published books on Venetian Carnival (Histoire du carnaval de Venise, XIe–XXIe siècle, 2013 and 2017); on the relations between the Italian Peninsula and France (La France et l’Italie: Histoire de deux nations sœurs, de 1660 à nos jours, 2016, with Jean-Yves Frétigné et Alessandro Giacone); and on the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early nineteenth-century tradition of the Grand Tour in its material and epistemological dimensions (Le Grand Tour revisité: Le voyage des Français en Italie, milieu XVIIIe–début XIXe siècle, 2008). With Jean Ehrard he has coordinated the edition of Montesquieu’s travels (Mes voyages, 2012) and with Marina Pieretti he has edited a late eighteenth-century account of a Roman marchioness’s trip to northern and southern Italy (Una marchesa in viaggio per l’Italia, 2019).




How to Cite

Bertrand, Gilles. 2020. “Venice Carnival from the Middle Ages to the Twenty- First Century: A Political Ritual Turned ‘Consumer Rite’?”. Journal of Festive Studies 2 (1):77-104.