Long ago I had heard that Carnevale, the festival celebrated for the ten days leading up to Lent on the Christian calendar, meant “farewell to meat.” Carne = meat, vale = farewell. This made sense since Christian traditionally give up meat during the Lenten season, and Carnevale was a celebration of excesses before the privations. I didn’t delve very far into this fact, and since I had read it in a number of places, I accepted it as true.
Until recently. I just read Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of the Renaissance by Guido Ruggiero. (You may remember me mentioning meeting him when he recently spoke at Santa Clara University.) Ruggiero looks at archival records of court cases to study the social mores surrounding marriage and power in the early Renaissance in Venice and the Veneto region. The book’s title refers to the way women in particular (though he explores the effects on men as well) were “bound” by societal and Church expectations.
Near the opening of the book, Ruggiero briefly brings up the concept of Carnevale as a time when “flesh mattered,” and people “broke through the multiple bonds that restrained it and [it] was celebrated” (11). He points out that Carnevale was a season, not a year-long celebration, because the “flesh,” our passions, needed a chance to be unleashed but not to rule. The passions were seen as very powerful and therefor quite dangerous to a cohesive society. This was principally during the 1500-1600s, and it seems as if things had changed by Casanova’s 18th century that was ruled by libertinism and when Carnevale lasted up to six months of the year.
But this etymology bothered me. I pulled out the magnifying glass, and even that was not enough to easily read the Oxford English Dictionary definition of carnival (yes, I have the edition that shrinks four pages onto one page). The term apparently comes from Latin: “carnem levare … meaning the putting away or removal of flesh (as food)” or also “carne lasciare, leaving or forsaking flesh.” Not exactly “farewell,” but close. But it goes on to point out that “flesh” refers to meat rather than the body: “In all these, flesh means meat, in that it was understood to mean the same in carnevaleria as shown by many early quotations in Du Cange.” (I hope I got that name right; the type was so hard to read.)
So I emailed Mr. Ruggiero to ask him about this seeming discrepancy—flesh or meat? He reiterated that the term “carne” in the 16th century meant both meat and flesh, adding that he was “rather merely suggesting that the connection was one that was suggestive and in many ways captured what carnival was about — the celebration of the flesh in all its forms.” I like that. Certainly that captures what Venetians did during the season—put on masks, tried new identities, picked up on strangers, gambled, attended the theater, ate and drank with abandon. No privations.
A couple weeks ago I booked my flight to Venice for Carnevale 2014. I’ll do some research there about how people enjoy their “pleasures of the flesh” and get back to you. 🙂