Baroque Bohemian Carnevale recreating centuries-old tradition long lost

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The annual Bohemian Carnevale got underway this week, and for the next seven days carnival-lovers will have a chance to forget the freezing temperatures in Prague with masked balls, parades and acrobatic performances. The event is an attempt to revive what was a major social event in days gone by – one that attracted big-name celebrities such as Mozart and Casanova.

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A group of clowns and jesters dressed in colourful harlequin costumes makes it entrance in a sumptuous ballroom inside the baroque walls of the Clam-Gallas Palace in Husova street, in the heart of the Old Town. Led by a drummer, the group entertains the audience, dressed in powdered wigs, satin robes and the obligatory carnival masks.

Say the word ‘carnival’ and people usually think of the masked extravaganzas of Brazil or Venice, but for centuries the carnival was the highlight of Prague’s social season too. Some of the celebrations were breathtakingly lavish. In 1570, the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo built a huge papier-mâché model of Mount Etna on Prague’s Old Town Square, erupting in a volcano of fireworks before disgorging a procession of terrified animals and aristocrats dressed as mythological figures.

Then, in the early 19th century, the carnival was banned. The imperial authorities in Vienna were increasingly concerned at the raucous parties that sometimes got rather out of hand, and the straight-laced Austrian Chancellor Metternich put a stop to it. Organiser Zlatuše Müller explains.

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“They used masks to murder or to make sex or to do things which are not good, and in the period of Metternich they forbidden the Carnevale. They didn’t like to have people in the masks.”

There’s no murder or indeed sex this evening – just some rather genteel Baroque dancing. Zlatuše and her husband Rostislav – she’s a stage designer, he’s an architect - have almost single-handedly recreated the Prague carnival tradition, adding various events each year such as a carnival for children and contests for the most beautiful mask. It’s now in it’s sixth year, and it’s gradually attracting curious visitors from further afield, as I found out by talking to two students Nora, from Hungary, and Mara, from Spain.

“Well in my country they are well-known, especially in the Canary Islands, but not this kind of carnival, so aristocratic and baroque. This is nice.”

“In Venice it’s about masks, but here it has this profile, this baroque style, it’s really unique. I still think that not many people know about it, because if you say Carnevale everybody thinks about Venice, but not about Prague. But maybe with time it will change!”

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Believe it or not that’s not such an ambitious goal. Village carnivals – known as masopust in Czech – continued in the countryside after the Prague carnival was banned and remain a feature of country life to this day. So it’s not such a stretch to imagine the tradition taking root again in Prague. After all, the famous Venice Carnival didn’t even exist thirty years ago; it was only revived by the Italians in the late 1970s. Organisers hope that with its menu of masked balls, costume contests and jaunty processions through the icy streets of the Old Town, they can do the same here as well.