Venice is a place of magic and majesty. For fifty-two weeks a year, the city mesmerises tourists with labyrinthine alleyways and winding canals. But for two of those weeks in particular, there is no place on Earth more mysterious and magical.
The Carnival of Venice is the high point in the city’s social calendar. The masked bash, which takes place each year in the two weeks leading up to the Christian celebration of Lent, sees Venice shed its winter gloom and burst into colour. Costumed revellers pose, preen and party in a stunningly surreal return to a time gone by.
It is undeniably atmospheric to wander postcard-perfect streets surrounded by cloaked and masked figures. There’s no Tom Cruise, no one whispering “Fidelio,” but a visit to the Carnival of Venice is guaranteed to be a memory that lasts a lifetime. The festival is riotous, refined, unapologetically upscale and utterly remarkable.
A History Of Excess
The story of the Carnival stretches back centuries. The first was reportedly held in 1162 to honour a victorious battle against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrich II von Treven. In the ensuing centuries, the Carnival swelled in size and spectacle, expanding to include wholesome family fun like bull-baiting and firing live dogs from cannons. Along with those more dubious amusements came the main attraction: the famous masked balls.
The Carnival of Venice reached its hedonistic peak in the 18th century. The entire city was gripped by decadence, earning it a reputation as Europe’s premier destination for debaucherous delights (just ask local boy Casanova). At the time, the libertine proceedings of the Carnival lasted a full two months.
Napoleon brought an end to the ultra-epicurean fete following his invasion of the Republic of Venice. The festival was outlawed in 1797 and the use of masks became strictly forbidden. For nearly 200 years, the Carnival that once defined a city lay dormant.
The long-awaited revival came in 1979. Looking to boost tourism and restore the culture of Venice, the Italian government resurrected the Old Word extravaganza. Today millions of well-dressed revellers visit Venice for the Carnival, which has rightfully re-earned its reputation as one of the world’s finest festivals.
Behind The Mask
The Carnival of Venice is more than an excuse to parade around in fancy dress. For the richest experience, you have to understand the importance of the masks themselves. The wearing of maschera is a tradition with deep cultural roots in Venice.
Some scholars believe the practice started as a unique response to one of the most rigid class hierarchies in European history. Others attribute the tradition to Venice’s famously sybaritic citizens. Hidden behind a mask, there’s little that couldn’t be done in a city that offered plentiful pleasures and indulgences (legal and otherwise). Costumed Venetians could behave wildly under the guise of their alter egos without fear of social consequence.
The practice of wearing masks became so widespread that authorities placed limits on it. Venetians were permitted to wear masks from St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) to Shrove or “Fat” Tuesday, as well as on Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas. At other times, masks were banned completely over concerns about the “collective madness” associated with them.
Maskmakers enjoyed a prestigious position in society. The mascherari had their own laws and their own guild, as well as statues erected in their honour. In contrast to the intricate works of art we’re familiar with now, the original Venetian masks were simple in design and decoration, and often had a symbolic or practical function. Today’s Venetian masks are all about style. The base is typically made from leather or porcelain, then hand-painted and decorated with feathers, gems and gold leaf.
What To Wear
Calling all dandies, peacocks and foppish fashion plates: this is your time to shine. The Carnival of Venice is not the place to break in your new sneakers or dig the shredded denim out of the back of your closet. Carnival fashion is big, bold and baroque.
There’s little point in attending just to spectate. Without a mask, at the bare minimum, you’re hardly experiencing the Carnival at all. Fortunately, it’s not hard to get in on the sartorial action. Mask shops allegedly out-number butchers in Venice. The best places to get the real thing are Ca’ Macanà, Tragicomica, L’Arlecchino and Papier Maché, where you’re guaranteed to find something authentic and dramatic.
Tradionally, several distinct styles of mask are worn at the Carnival, including the slightly grotesque bauta, the half-mask Colombina, the beaked Medico della Peste and the iconic volto. A variety of characters from Italian commedia dell’arte theatre also appear.
Beyond the mask, participants can hire or purchase costumes from shops around the city. History is widely plundered for costume ideas. Ancient Egyptians mingle with men sporting bishop’s mitres and women doing their best Marie Antoinette impressions. While accuracy is appreciated, it takes a back seat to elaborateness.
With two full weeks of festivities, the sheer scope of the Venice Carnival can be overwhelming. Let go of the idea that you can see and do it all. You can’t. But if you plan ahead, you can hit the key bits and maximise your opportunities for killer Instagram pics.
St Mark’s Square is the heart of Carnival activities. It’s there that you’ll find the most extraordinary costumes, many vying to take the prize in the best costume competition or be snapped by photographers. Two costume competitions run side-by-side, a day’s best and a festival finest, with twice-a-day heats. The grand finale for festival best takes place in St Mark’s Square on the closing day of the Carnival.
One of the Carnival’s most spectacular moments is Il Volo dell’Angelo (The Flight of the Angel). In this death-defying spectacle, an ‘angel’ dangles from a metal cable and, suspended high above the crowds, descends from the top of St. Mark’s Bell Tower to the Doge’s Palace. The person chosen to be the angel is notoriously random. Past selections include a female swimming champion and the rapper Coolio.
A number of entertainments can be found around the city during Carnival time. The festivities begin with masked processions through the streets. The following days are filled with jousts, mock-military demonstrations, water-borne pageants, street performers and bands. Look for musical and theatrical performances on the weekends, as well as matches of calcio storico, a medieval precursur to football.
The masked balls are the highlight of the Carnival experience for many. Tickets don’t come cheap, but with so many options to choose from, you can search for the one that best fits your budget. Check the Carnival website for the full list of masked merriments.
Two weeks of revelry come to a close, be sure to catch the candlelit procession at the end of the event. A swarm of decorated boats and gondolas carry masked passengers as they wend their way down the Grand Canal. The sight is striking and ethereal. The grand finale is the Notte de la Taranta (Night of the Tarantula) with a massive fireworks show at midnight. Dance like you’ve been bitten by a poisonous spider and won’t live to see the sun rise.