About This Festival
Who is that behind the mask? Or better yet, who are you wearing the mask? Who will you become? What is your fantasy? These are questions you’ll be asking yourself during the weeks before Ash Wednesday, when Venice cloaks itself in a veil of mystery welcoming the Carnevale di Venezia (Carnival of Venice), the world’s most elegant Carnival. Socialites come out and play, disguised in 18th-century costumes, in a spectacle that transports visitors to an age of opulence. Venice Carnival is unapologetically upscale and thrives on it. The elaborate Carnival balls are among the world’s most elite parties and come with a high price tag, but the most alluring aspect of this festival is just wandering the labyrinthine island city of historic canals and alleyways filled with costumed revelers and soaking up the one-of-a-kind ambiance.
Origins of the Carnival of Venice
The original Carnival of Venice took place in 1162 to honor one of Venice’s victorious battles when the city was known as the “Repubblica della Serenissima.” It took more than a hundred years before city leaders proclaimed Carnival an official event, and then it grew until its wild peak in the 18th century, when Venice was renowned as the pleasure capital of Europe, producing the likes of the famously hedonistic Casanova. But the glory days of Carnival came tumbling down when the party-crashing Napoleon invaded Venice in 1797. He killed Carnival for almost 200 years. It wasn’t until 1979 that, in order to boost tourism, the city of Venice brought back this Old World-style party. In fact, this historic spin is what sets this Carnival apart from other famous celebrations like those in Rio or New Orleans.
To best understand Carnival of Venice, you need to understand the importance of the maschera or masks. The mask allowed citizens to behave wildly and adopt alter egos without the fear of social consequence. This physical transformation permitted a judgment of character based purely upon the mask and costumes rather than roles of society. Historically, Venetians were allowed to wear masks from St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th) to Shrove or “Fat” Tuesday, though at certain times the masks were banned completely because of the “collective madness” associated with them. The mascherari, or professional mask makers, have prestigious roles in society, with statues honoring them dating to 1436.
Masks allow members from all classes of society to party together under the veil of anonymity. Italian masquerade has several typical masks. The Bauta is the most common and covers the upper face, nose and cheeks while allowing the wearer to eat, drink and speak freely. The Bauta was used in both Carnival and everyday life. Moretta masks originated in France. Moretta means “dark” and represents the mysterious, a common theme during these ten days. It is feminine and covers the face with soft curves. The Volto (Italian for “face”) or Larva (Latin for “ghost”) are the simplest “ghost masks” covering the entire face with decorated white and are accompanied by a cloak. The most frightening of the bunch is the Medico della Peste or the Plague Doctor. A long beaked nose, overcoat and white gloves were thought to serve as protection during the 17th-century outbreak of the plague.
Events, Balls, Performances for More Than a Week
The Carnival of Venice starts ten days before Ash Wednesday or, as in most Carnivals, the time of feasting before the fast of Lent. Contrary to Rio’s Carnival or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, this is a distinctly formal affair. The location alone sets the tone. If you can afford it, one of the Carnival balls is bound to leave a lasting impression both in your memory and on your wallet with prices up to 2000 Euros for a single ball.
The most revered of the events is the official opening of Carnival at St. Mark’s Square, which is the center of most festivities. Not to be missed is “The Flight of the Angel,” which begins at noon and commemorates the 16th-century Turkish acrobats who wowed crowds with daring tightrope walks. In the modern-day celebration, an “angel” flies on a steel cable above the costumed crowd to the string music of Vivaldi. The plaza is packed with everyone from disguised dignitaries to the colorful masses. From there, the crowd disperses into the back alleys and canals to wander by foot and gondola.
Theater is an essential element of Venice Carnival, from street performances to the Gran Teatro in St. Mark’s Square. The Grand Theater offers performances 12 hours a day with daily costume contests, musical performances and theater. Each year a new theme governs the year’s shows. Teatro Goldoni, Malibran and La Fenice are classic locations to catch performances.
Don’t miss the candlelight water parade on Shrove Tuesday. Rowboats, gondolas and other watercraft, all illuminated by candlelight, provide a romantic, ethereal spectacle. Being “Fat Tuesday,” many revelers are caught up in the festival’s most raucous night of partying, but you should join in, ideally from the water on one of the boats, to bid this Carnival “ciao” in style.
The ten-day party’s grand finale is the Notte de la Taranta (Night of the Tarantula) with a massive fireworks show at midnight. After that, the party is essentially over as it’s time to fast, so dance like you’ve been bitten by a spider and won’t live through the night!