Carnival, a festival observed in most Roman Catholic countries immediately before the commencement of Lent, but celebrated with more parade in Rome and Venice than any other cities. Its name is derived from the Latin carni vale, farewell to meat, as from Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a strict fast is observed for 40 days. Much dispute exists as to the origin of this festival, but it has probably come down from the Saturnalia of pagan Rome, modified by the early Christians into a feast during the several days preceding the great fast of 40 days, generally supposed to have been instituted by Telesphorus, bishop of Rome, before the middle of the 2d century. The carnival appears to be most suited to the genius of the Italian people, being kept up by them with undying spirit, while in other lands it has frequently languished or fallen into neglect. The only relic of it remaining in England, or ever introduced into the English portions of North America, consists in the observance of Shrove Tuesday. In Paris the carnival takes place during the five or six weeks preceding Ash Wednesday, and is marked by the frequency of masked and fancy balls in private society, and at the various places of public amusement; such balls, to which the public is indiscriminately admitted, having been first permitted by the regent duke of Orleans. During the festivities, masks appear in the streets only on the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday preceding Lent, and at Mi-Careme or Mid-Lent Thursday. On these days persons in disguise, many of them masked, and exhibiting all sorts of folly, parade the streets, and immense crowds in carriages, on horseback, or on foot, assemble to witness the gayeties of the scene.
The carnival was prohibited in 1790, and no more celebrated until the appointment of Bonaparte as first consul. Its restoration was a cause of great joy to the Parisians, and for some years nothing could exceed the beauty and richness of the costumes displayed upon this annual festival; but it has now lost many of its charms, and the masks are com-paratively few. After parading the streets, the masks repair for the night to the various masked balls of every description, which then abound in the capital. The public masked balls take place on fixed days throughout the carnival, being given at almost all the theatres. The procession of the boeuf gras (the fat ox) has for ages been celebrated at Paris on the Sunday and Tuesday before Lent, when the government prize ox, preceded by music, and accompanied by a numerous train of butchers fantastically dressed, is led through the streets. The ox is covered with tapestry, and his head adorned with laurel. Formerly the ox bore on his back a child, called roi des bouchers (king of the butchers), decorated with a blue scarf, and holding a sceptre in one hand and a sword in the other.
He now follows the ox in a triumphal car, but without his sword and sceptre. - The carnival in Italy is much the same in the different cities where it is celebrated; that of Venice is by no means as brilliant as in former days, and it will be therefore sufficient to describe that of Rome. It extends over the eleven days which immediately precede Ash Wednesday, though only eight days are actually given up to its festivities, the two Sundays and Friday not being included, from motives of religion. The festivities are held in the Corso, and the streets immediately adjoining, to which the show is contined. The Corso is about a mile long, but very narrow, being on an average only about 35 ft. broad, and lined by lofty houses, nearly all of which are built with overhanging balconies, with especial reference to this spectacle; and where permanent balconies are wanting, temporary structures of wood are frequently erected. Thus persons on opposite balconies are brought within speaking distance, or near enough to exchange bouquets and sugar-plums. The street beneath is densely filled with carriages and foot passengers, and all are brought so close together as to act and react upon each other.
The sport does not last through the whole of each day, but only from about 2 o'clock till dark, during the short days of February. Pieces of brilliant cotton, cloth, or silk, red, yellow, and blue, are hung over the balconies, while innumerable streamers of the same hues flutter in the breeze. Far as the eye can reach, the balconies are crowded with spectators, many of them beautiful and gayly dressed women. The course below is thronged with two rows of carriages, moving in opposite directions and filled With gay parties; while crowds of pedestrians mingle among the vehicles, clad in every variety of costume that fancy can suggest, masked, and playing every imaginable prank within the bounds of decency. Meanwhile all engage in pelting each other far and near with flowers, bonbons, and confetti. For some time before the carnival begins flowers are brought into Rome in exhaust-less profusion, costly bouquets of hot-house flowers being ranged side by side with the wild growth of the Campagna. The bonbons are not so abundant, but still are used extensively; while the confetti, which are nothing but pellets of lime about the size of a pea, are scattered in myriads, and cover those attacked from head to foot with lime dust.
Every day of the masquerade the Corso becomes more crowded and more animated, till on the last the number and spirit of the masks, the skirmishes of bonbons and lime dust, and the shouts and enthusiasm of all, surpass description. Of the mass who elbow one another through the crowded streets, the greater part are in their ordinary garb, though disguises are common enough not to attract any particular notice. Among the most usual masks are punchinellos, harlequins, and pantaloons. Some of the masks carry an inflated bladder on the end of a stick, with which they deal noisy but harmless blows. Besides carriages such as are seen every day, many are put together for the occasion merely, and consist of framework resting upon wheels, and made to assume various shapes, such as ships or moving forests. Every day of the masquerade there is a race by spirited horses, but without riders. About 5 o'clock preparations begin for the running of these animals. Mounted dragoons trot up and down the Corso, the carriages are withdrawn into by-streets, and pedestrians alone are left.
Meanwhile the horses which are to run have been brought to the starting point in the piazza del Popolo. Each one is held by his groom in a showy uniform, and they are kept within bounds until the hour for starting arrives by a rope stretched across the Corso. They are goaded on in the race by metal balls full of sharp points, which are fastened to their trappings. The goal is formed by a piece of cloth suspended across the street near the Venetian palace, at the Ripresa de' Barberi, so called from Barbary horses being the original racers. At this point the judges are assembled to decide upon the race. Goethe, who visited Rome in 1788, says that carriages were then allowed to remain in the Corso, and their presence rendered it so narrow that horses often dashed themselves against the wheels and were instantly killed. Of late years, the celebration of the carnival in Rome has lost much of its ancient splendor and interest.