CARNIVAL (Med. Lat. carnelevarium, from caro, carnis, flesh, and levare, to lighten or put aside; the derivation from valere, to say farewell, is unsupported), the last three days preceding Lent, which in Roman Catholic countries are given up to feasting and merry-making. Anciently the carnival was held to begin on twelfth night (6th January) and last till midnight of Shrove Tuesday. There is little doubt that this period of licence represents a compromise which the church always inclined to make with the pagan festivals and that the carnival really represents the Roman Saturnalia. Rome has ever been the headquarters of carnival, and though some popes, notably Clement IX. and XI. and Benedict XIII., made efforts to stem the tide of Bacchanalian revelry, many of the popes were great patrons and promoters of carnival keeping. Paul II. was notable in this respect. In his time the Jews of Rome were compelled to pay yearly a sum of 1130 golden florins (the thirty being added as a special memorial of Judas and the thirty pieces of silver), which was expended on the carnival. A decree of Paul II., minutely providing for the diversions, orders that four rings of silver gilt should be provided, two in the Piazza Navona and two at the Monte Testaccio - one at each place for the burghers and the other for the retainers of the nobles to practise riding at the ring. The pope also orders a great variety of races, the expenses of which are to be paid from the papal exchequer - one to be run by the Jews, another for Christian children, another for Christian young men, another for sexagenarians, a fifth for asses, and a sixth for buffaloes. Under Julius III. we have long accounts of bull-hunts - or rather bull-baits - in the Forum, with gorgeous descriptions of the magnificence of the dresses, and enormous suppers in the palace of the Conservatori in the capitol, where seven cardinals, together with the duke Orazio Farnese, supped at one table, and all the ladies by themselves at another. After the supper the whole party went into the courtyard of the palace, which was turned into the semblance of a theatre, "to see a most charming comedy which was admirably played, and lasted so long that it was not over till ten o'clock!" Even the austere and rigid Paul IV. (ob. 1559) used to keep carnival by inviting all the Sacred College to dine with him. Sixtus V., who was elected in 1585, set himself to the keeping of carnival after a different fashion. Determined to repress the lawlessness and crime incident to the period, he set up gibbets in conspicuous places, as well as whipping-posts, the former as a hint to robbers and cut-throats, the latter in store for minor offenders. We find, further, from the provisions made at the time, that Sixtus reformed the evil custom of throwing dirt and dust and flour at passengers, permitting only flowers or sweetmeats to be thrown.
The later popes for the most part restricted the public festivities of the carnival to the last six or seven days immediately preceding Ash Wednesday. The municipal authorities of the city, on whom the regulation of such matters now depends, allow ten days. The carnival sports at Rome anciently consisted of three divisions: (1) the races in the Corso (formerly called the Via Lata, and taking its present name from them), which appear to have been from time immemorial a part of the festivity; (2) the spectacular pageant of the Agona; (3) that of the Testaccio.
Of other Italian cities, Venice used in old times to be the principal home, after Rome, of carnival. To-day Turin, Milan, Florence, Naples, all put forth competing programmes. In old times Florence was conspicuous for the licentiousness of its carnival; and the Canti Carnascialeschi, or carnival songs, of Lorenzo de' Medici show to what extent the licence was carried. The carnival in Spain lasts four days, including Ash Wednesday. In France the merry-making is restricted almost entirely to Shrove Tuesday, or mardi gras. In Russia, where no Ash Wednesday is observed, carnival gaieties last a week from Sunday to Sunday.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)