Venice Festival of the Bull

Venice Festival of the Bull

Festa del Toro

Venice Carnival Traditions Part II

Masked villagers at Festa del Toro, Venice ©BillGent
Villagers at Festa del Toro, Venice Carnival ©BillGent

Historical reenactment is the basis of many festivals that take place in Italy throughout the year. Perhaps none are as colorful or filled with pageantry as those that take place annually in Venice during Carnival. In our last blog, The Festival of the Twelve Marias, we described the legend of the 12 young brides, their kidnapping and rescue that takes place on the first day of Carnival. The Festival of the Bull (Festa del Toro), which takes place a few days later, is a reenactment of a relatively obscure piece of Venetian history.

Model of the bull at the Festa del Toro, Venice Carnival ©BillGent
The Model of the Bull, Venice ©BillGent

HISTORY OF THE FESTIVAL OF THE BULL

Just north of the city of Venice, on the mainland, is the Roman city of Aquileia. It was once one of the world’s largest cities, and one of the main archeological sites in the region. Grado is an island just off the coast, used as a refuge for the inhabitants of Aquileia during numerous invasions.

As the Roman Empire was Christianized, Aquileia became a prominent religious center. It also continued to be the target of invaders. The Visigoths sacked it in 403, the Huns in 452, and the Lombards in 659. Each time, the inhabitants of Aquileia fled to the lagoon, first to Grado and then to other islands, eventually establishing the city of Venice.

Masks of Pigs, Venice, ©BillGent
Two of the twelve pigs, Festival of the Bull, ©BillGent

During one of these exoduses, the Patriarch of Aquileia took refuge on Grado, bringing with him the relics of two saints. The inhabitants of Grado took this to mean that ecclesiastical authority had been transferred to Grado. The rivalry between the two Patriarchs over who was the most important went on for many years.

In 1162, when war with Padua and Ferrara distracted the Venetian authorities, Ulrich, the Patriarch of Aquileia, and 12 of his lords attacked Grado, forcing the Patriarch of Grado to flee to Venice.

Venice’s Doge, Vitale II Michiel, responded with force. A powerful fleet sailed to Grado, which was surrounded. The Doge captured Ulrich, his 12 lords, and 700 others who were taken prisoner and brought back to Venice.

The Festival of the Bull, Venice Carnival ©BillGent
Three masked participants on stilts, Festival of the Bull ©BillGent.

Pope Alexander III eventually brokered a peace agreement between Venice and Aquileia. In exchange for the release of the Patriarch and the other detainees, Aquileia undertook to provide the Doge with an annual payment of a bull, twelve pigs and 300 loaves of bread. The animals were slaughtered in a public ceremony on “Fat Thursday” during Carnival to commemorate the victory. The Festival of the Bull continued for hundreds of years, with the bull representing the Patriarch of Aquileia and the twelve pigs, the lords.

One of the costumes at Venice Carnival ©BillGent
A hobby-horse at Festa del Toro, Venice ©BillGent

TODAY’S HISTORICAL REENACTMENT

Five years ago, the Association of L’Arte dei Mascareri (The Association of the Mask Makers) revived the Festa del Toro, or Festival of the Bull, as part of the Venice Carnival. However, instead of living animals, Papier-mâché masks represent the various participants.

Sharing the loaves of bread, Festival of the Bull, Venice, ©BillGent
Twelve Marias carrying loaves of bread, Festival of the Bull ©BillGent

The Festival of the Bull starts on the piazza in front of the Gothic Church of San Giacomo near the Rialto market, its campanile graced by a 15th- century clock. People in period costumes, as well as the Twelve Marias, each carrying loaves of bread, accompany the papier mâché bull.
With much hilarity and merrymaking, the procession winds its way over the Rialto Bridge and through the streets of Venice to Piazza San Marco where the paper bull and the pigs are symbolically beheaded.

The Festival of the Bull is yet another fascinating Venetian tradition brought to life during Carnival.

Costumer wearing gondola mask at Festa del Toro ©BillGent
A gondola mask at Festa del Toro, Venice ©BillGent

IF YOU GO

To ensure you have the most up-to-date details of the Festival, check the Carnevale di Venezia website to confirm time and place. As with everything else during Carnival, the crowds are large. For the best photography and the least number of people, go to the staging area near San Giacomo.

For more information about Carnival in Venice see our blog.

For more images from Venice Carnival and Venice, visit Allegria Photos.

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One thought on “Venice Festival of the Bull

  1. Another interesting story you dug up and put to pen. Love the photos too – Bill.
    Those Venetians could have a party or celebration about anything, what’s next?

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