Some believe that carnival celebrations spread through Europe with the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, form which the word bacchanal comes. Others believe that the Catholic Church harnessed ancient pagan fertility rights which date back to an earlier time, perhaps even our passage through the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, or to mans journey out of Africa.
Carnival, or Carnevale, has been celebrated for centuries throughout Italy. It is an opportunity to indulge and use up such treats before the start of Lent (like an extended Pancake Day).
In modern Italy Carnevale is generally a time for children, who are led, carried and wheeled around town dressed in costumes - from cute fluffy animal suits to musketeers and Harry Potters, leaving a trail of confetti, sweets and 'silly string' littering streets and piazzas. Sometimes the celebrations extend to organised events for the whole community, but on the whole it's not a very important time for adults.
In Venice, however, the tourist board and hoteliers hit upon a fantastic money-earner in the 1980s when they revived a picturesque version of Venice's past. In Venice it's the grown-ups who have most of the fun, with masked balls, costume parades and a slightly antiseptic nostalgia for more decadent times.
However much the modern Carnival may be contrived for tourists, it's undeniably atmospheric to walk down a lane in Venice and pass cloaked and masked figures. The tourist board and hotels urge their guests to participate by wearing at least a mask as they tour the town. It can be an exciting time for children, as long as the dehumanising masks don't scare them, and there are plenty of opportunities for fun. Young and old can admire the spectacle and select their favourite costumed characters, and there are plenty of opportunities to photograph your loved ones alongside dramatically-costumed carnival-goers. The city is very busy, particularly during the two Carnival weekends, and there is a genuinely festive atmosphere.
Since 2008 the Carnival has been organised for the first time by a consortium headed by the Venice Casino. There are lots of events scheduled all around Venice, with a programme available online and from the tourist information offices.