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Wine, masks and debauchery: How did Italy’s Carnival tradition begin?

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
Wine, masks and debauchery: How did Italy’s Carnival tradition begin?
Masks for sale in Venice during Carnival season - a tradition with ancient, and much wilder, roots. (Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP)

Towns across Italy are holding Carnival pageants and parades, but few people know the true origins of these celebrations, writes Silvia Marchetti.


Masks, wild costumes, confetti, fried frappe and castagnole – Carnival’s back. But not everyone knows that these festivities date back to the dawn of time.

“At exactly the same time of the year, now, the Ancient Greeks celebrated the Baccanali, which they likely imported from Mesopotamia. Then the Romans turned the Greek partying into the Saturnali and Lupercali”, says Giorgio Franchetti, a historian of Ancient Rome.

During the Baccanali – feasts held in honour of Bacchus, or Dionysius, the god of wine – revellers would dance and get drunk on wine mixed with honey, which allowed them to let loose, free their souls and connect with the deities and the afterworld. The wine supposedly sent them into a physical and spiritual ecstasy, a sort of purifying trance.

The ancient Romans took these wild events further. The Saturnali celebrations, in honour of Saturn, who was also the god of agriculture, coincided with the sowing of the fields and fertility rites.

“Lumps of earth would be overturned to allow the seeds to sink in, in the same way the Saturnali triggered an overturning of the established order, social roles and hierarchies: women would dress as men, men as women, slaves as masters, masters as slaves, and all partook in extreme acts”, says Franchetti. Wine and lavish meals went on for a week, and nobody, not even the slaves, worked.

Venice Carnival

Masked actors perform on a stage in Venice's St. Mark's Square in February 2024. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

The destruction of the known order of things by allowing people to vent out their desires and instincts once a year was necessary to maintain the same order. Creating chaos was the only rule; it was a blank cheque to debauchery.

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Italians still have a saying: “A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale” (during Carnival any kind of trick goes). Morality and taboos drop, transgression takes over, the boundaries between evil and good, profane and sacred, blur.

The Saturnali were the celebration of a topsy-turvy, subversive world, where disguises and masks concealed identities and allowed revellers to act with total freedom and commit all sorts of mischief.

Sexuality played a key part: extreme sexual activity and sex role reversal triggered a strong fertility force believed to regenerate nature ahead of spring.

February was also when the empire honoured the Febris goddess, worshipped by the pre-Roman Etruscans too as a bearer of purification.


“The Ancient Romans had another festival as well during our period of Carnival; it was called Lupercali in honour of the god-wolf Luperco, otherwise known as Caco or Fauno, whose cult hails back to the Etruscans”, says Franchetti.

Luperco represented the most vicious human passions and animal instincts, and a free pass to perversion was granted in his name.

Carnival, Venice

A masked reveller poses during the Venice Carnival in February 2023. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

According to Franchetti, who studied ancient sources, during the Lupercali, drunk partygoers would wrap themselves in animal skins, before taking them off to run naked across the Roman forum – men, women and slaves alike. Random coupling and animal sacrifices were carried out. 

Nakedness symbolised that, for one moment of the year, all were equal. Wars paused, famine became a momentary abundance of food. It was a break from the harsh reality of authority. It is said that during one Lupercali Julius Caesar foresaw his future coronation as emperor, as in a vision.


When Christianity came along, it overlapped with these pagan celebrations, making the need for social release even stronger.

Catholicism regulated and integrated carnival into the Christian calendar, marking it as a pre-Lent festivity. And Lent, the 40-days period of reflection, fasting and penance in preparation for Easter, stopped the wild parties.

Franchetti explains that the origin of the term ‘carnival’ stems from the Latin ‘carnem levare’, meaning ‘farewell to meat’, to mark Shrove Tuesday, the last day when eating fat or meat, considered an extravagance, was still allowed before Lent.

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The perception and existence of a tyrannical church that terrified sinners with images of hell and punished vices, lust and amorality, only intensified peoples’ desire to have fun during Carnival. 

And even the clergy couldn’t resist the party: for two centuries during the middle ages masked priests celebrated “the feast of the crazy” by using sausages instead of sacramental bread for mass. 

“If it wants to survive, society’s structured order needs Carnival as a momentary worship of chaos and disorder, to justify and strengthen such order”, says Franchetti.

This article was originally published in February 2023.


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