Venice is famous throughout the world for its beautiful canals and waterways, its incredible art collections, and its singular culture and gastronomy. An event that combines all the best elements of the city, however, is the completely unique festival of Carnival. This takes place every year in the two weeks leading up to Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras). It is essentially one final celebration before commencing the fasting period of Lent, which leads up to Easter. This, however, is not how or why the carnival originated. In fact, its past is much more controversial, and its significance roots itself in much more nuanced matters.
The very first carnival probably consisted of nothing much more than a celebratory gathering and dance in the Piazza San Marco. This followed the victory of Venice, or the Serenissma Repubblicai (literally, The Most Serene Republic), over the Patriarch of Aquileia in the late 12th Century. This tradition continued, and eventually became an official festival during the Italian Renaissance. In fact, come the 17th Century, the festival was seminal in keeping Venice’s golden reputation together, and by the mid-18th Century it was famous throughout Europe.
That said, 1797 saw the banning of masks and the festival come into play. This was due to the fact the Venice had fallen into the hands of the Austrian King, who outlawed the festivities. Come the early 19th Century, however, private feasts and celebrations were allowed for short periods of time. Nevertheless, the heyday of of the Carnival appeared to be well and truly over. It wasn’t until 1979 that the carnival resurfaced in all its glory. We can thank the government’s push to reinstate the historical and cultural heritage of Venice for this resurgence. In fact, the carnival became the flagship event to carry this project forward.
Today, the festivities attract millions of visitors every year and puts on a plethora of events, performances and galas. The very best of these tend to cost a fortune, given their incredibly high demand. For example, many exclusive hotels will hold masked balls, where a ticket can cost around €500. Some even include a complimentary costume fitting and making! That said, there is much you can do in the festival that doesn’t require a bottomless pockets. Simply by walking around Venice’s streets you will see locals sporting their historical costumes and the striking masks, usually being followed around by a queue of tourists waiting for a photo opportunity. Arriving in good time, you can also find a great seat along the Grand Canal in time for the Gondola Parade. Here gondolas filled with such opulently-dressed celebrators float down the canal, often accompanied by music and cheers.
The atmosphere that pervades the city is one of excitement and wonder. In fact, the Venetians display a vivid sense of pride as they parade their legendary cultural heritage for all to see. That said, there is a certain calmness that such costumed figures exude, despite the city being so busy. The pace of the city remains tranquil and relatively slow. Don’t make the mistake of mixing up this atmosphere with the Rio de Janeiro Carnival!
One of the symbols of this carnival are the many masks, each of which can mean different things. These can be hand-painted, gilded, feathered and gem-stoned, and were originally made of leather, porcelain or glass. What is more, back in the 17th Century, masks were representative of your status, and you could not wear them on certain occasions, if you were a prostitute, or if you were a man and wanted to wear a woman’s mask. Each type has a name, including the Bauta, Colombino, Medico della Peste, Servetta Muta, Volto, Pantalone, Arlecchino and Zanni.
The masks of the best quality can cost hundreds of euros. Recently, however many cheaper versions have now infiltrated the market, often made in America. Avoid these if you can, simply because they are killing off the craftsmanship and tradition that surrounds the carnival. In fact, many mask-makers can no longer afford to create such pieces.
Of course, it is essential to soak up as much of the carnival as possible whilst you are in Venice. That said, this can also be a great time to head to some of the city’s more popular attractions. This might seem counter-intuitive, given the massive flux in foreign visitors. However, the majority of these will be trying to get an invite to one of the balls, attending one of the many performances or standing in line for a photo with a costumed festival-goer. As such, it may well be that queues and crowds around major attractions will diminish, especially for museums and churches. Alternatively, take trips out to the outskirts of Venice, such as to the charming ‘glass island’ of Murano.
Of course, the main events are simply unmissable. These usually take place on the large Piazza San Marco and attract huge crowds from far and wide. Make sure to arrive in plenty of time if you want even a half-decent viewing point! Even if you don’t receive an invite to a ball, and cannot get hold of a ticket to one of the carnival’s events, carnival season is a great time to be in Venice. Simply order yourself a café at a canal-side coffee shop and take in the unforgettable, curious and beautiful sight of these unnamed masked figures, floating down the waterways and strolling down the streets.