It’s always been on my bucket list to go to Carnevale in Venice (Carnevale di Venezia). It’s a centuries-old annual festival that ends the day before Ash Wednesday. Invitation-only balls, famed Venetian masks, outrageous costumes in the traditional Venetian style, musical events, and lots of parties make this one of the best events in Italy. It’s also one of the most unique Carnival celebrations in the world.
Carnevale in Venice
Compared to the New Orlean’s Mardi Gras celebration, Carnevale in Venice is more opulent, refined, and eccentric. Venice naturally attracts thousands of people each year because the city is so charming. But the dial is turned to ten during Carnevale thanks to people donning masks everywhere like a circus.
If you’re looking for a fun bucket list event in Italy, Carnevale in Venice is the way to go. For everything you need to know about this Italian festival, read on!
When is Carnivale in Venice?
Carnevale officially kicks off at midnight when an acrobat jumps from the bell tower in La Piazza di San Marco. This is called il volo dell’angelo (“flight of the angel”) and dates back to the La Serenissima period. Carnevale rages on for ten days thereafter until the day before Lent. The name Carnevale means “farewell to meat”.
Brief History of Carnivale in Venice
Musicians, jugglers, acrobats, dancers, parties, pranks, and entertainment have been amusing citizens of the Venetian Republic ever since the victory against the Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162.
However, the mask tradition started in the 13th century when parties would be held from December 26th until Lent. Licentious behavior and frivolity eventually became its reputation, so it was outlawed in 1797. Luckily it reappeared in the 19th century under the auspices of private feasts. Finally, in 1979 Carnevale in Venice became official again. Today 3 million visitors go to Venice every year to celebrate it.
The masks are the best part of attending Carnevale by far, and I love the people who go all out with them. They’re beautifully ornate, historical, and creative. It’s also really fun to wear them because you feel enigmatic. When I went I was sick so I was able to hide underneath one, which was great since I must’ve looked terrible.
The best place to find elaborate costumes and wonderful masks is at La Riva degli Schiavoni or St Mark’s Square (La Piazza di San Marco). However, one of the coolest events is the contest for la maschera `più bella (“the most beautiful mask”) on the last weekend of Carnevale. Many of the costumes and masks are artistic and eye-catching, but to be the most beautiful mask in all of Venice means it has to be something really special.
History of Venetian Masks
The masks have an old and interesting origin. The Venetians repurposed the ancient mask wearing tradition from the Latin Saturnalia and Greek Dionysian cults. Throughout the Renaissance the masks were actually worn not only during the Carnival season, but also from the Ascension to Christmas. In other words people spent months in disguise.
Mascherari (maskmakers) made masks to suit occupations. But the best thing about the masks during this time period was that it gave the wearer complete autonomy. This in a sense mitigated the social class barriers, which is why it was so appealing. Suddenly, a lower class person could be on equal footing with a higher class person just because they were in disguise through the mask.
Types of Venetian Masks
If you want to get a quality traditional mask, you can buy them easily online. There are plenty to choose from, but note that they do have varying meanings.
Below is a list of the main types of masks and here is a good resource for the Venetian masks and their meanings.
- Medico delle peste
- Moretta/ Servetta Muta
- Volta (Larva)
You can buy any old one off of street vendors or go to the many shops and purchase one of the really fancy ones. I still have the pink one I bought years ago.
What Are Venetian Masks Made Of?
High quality masks are made of porcelain, leather, or by the original glass technique. Gesso, feathers, gems and gold leaf are most often applied to the surface as decoration.
Fashionable Masked Balls in Venice
Ah – my favorite part and the most sought after for Living Charm. Here’s the problem – these masked balls aren’t so easy to attend. One day. Mark my words – one day. Anyway, the Venetian palaces hold elegant masquerade balls throughout Carnevale. There are plenty of nice ones to go to but I’m sure there are a few libertine-types that trace its roots to back in the day.
What To Do In Venice During Carnival?
Besides exploring the city and dressing up be on the look-out for parades. The processions from waterfront to St. Mark’s Square, the procession of gondolas on the Grand Canal, and firework displays should be hunted down.
And for goodness sake EAT. The food fritelle is a fried pastry dough with powdered sugar and cream or Nutella in the inside. It’s a typical Venetian dish and yummy, so try it! The main touristy things in Venice are the following:
- La Piazza di San Marco
- Pictures with pigeons
- Kissing bridges picturse
- Il Volo dell’Angelo
- Doge’s Palace
- Grand Canal
- Gondola ride
Venice Carnival Travel Tips
Airlines increase their prices for the Carnevale so book in advance. Hotels are very expensive within the city so you might want to look at the nearby towns and take public transportation in. Many people find accommodations in the town of Treviso, which takes 30 minutes by train.
There is also a bus into Venice. We stayed outside the city in these eerie campgrounds and had to take the bus. It was easy. For some reason where we stayed was very foggy and looked like it was from a scary movie.
If you want a fancy mask, be ready to pay for it. Otherwise there are plenty of factory made ones you can grab off the street if you don’t want to worry about it getting ruined. I got my pink one in the pictures above for about 40 euro off the street.