On any given day, the city of Venice is one of the most unimaginably beautiful cities you can ever witness in your lifetime.
But once a year, the already expressive city transforms itself into something almost otherworldly.
I’m talking about Carnevale.
During the two weeks leading up to Lent, Venice comes alive with vibrant costumes and ornate masks.
The air is thick with the feeling of celebration and tradition. You can feel it as soon as you get off the train, almost an hour’s walk to the city’s main square - St. Mark’s.
Watching Venice come to life as masked party goers fill the streets and confetti swirls in the air really is magical. It makes even the most jaded traveler become a bit giddy as the famed “floating city” of Venezia explodes with colorful sights and festivities.
Even though Carnevale is a long-standing tradition in the city, nobody really knows exactly when or why it started. What we do know is that it became very famous in the eighteenth century, when Venice was famous for its libertines and mask balls. However, under the rule of the King of Austria, the Venice Carnival was outlawed. After a long absence (more than 180 years), the Carnival of Venice returned in 1979 when the Italian government decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice by allowing and officially recognizing this traditional Carnival.
Fast forward to today, and it is now one of the most famous carnival celebrations in the world, with around 3 million visitors flocking the canal-covered city each spring to watch or join in the festivities.
During my time in Italy, I was lucky enough to witness this unique celebration first hand. Here’s everything you should know about this centuries old festival...
Costumes, Costumes, Costumes
Carnevale is all about the costumes.
The costumes that I came across during Carnevale were some of the most beautiful, intricate and magnificent costumes I have ever seen in my life.
The themes of the costumes vary, but there are always an overload of Venetian Period costumes from the 13th to 15th century.
The mixture of Venice and the costumes acts like a time machine - one of the most precious aspects of being in Venice during Carnival.
Take your pick from the grotesque Bauta, jeweled Columbina, the outlandish Medico dellapeste or the velvet Moretta; Venetian Masks are a piece of art and mask markers hold a prominent position in Venetian society.
There are several different styles of masks that are worn during the Venice Carnival.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most common types...
The Bauta mask is recognizable by it's square-ish jaw, large chin, and no mouth.
Covering the full face, the Bauta is often either heavily gilded or stark white.
In the 18th century, the Bauta become a standardized society mask regulated by the Venetian government. It was obligatory to wear it at certain political events during that time and was typically worn by men.
The Columbina is a modern half mask which covers the eyes, nose, and upper cheeks.
They typically come adorned with an ornate variety of jewels, feathers and fabrics and are often painted in gold or silver.
Typically held in place by either a tied ribbon or a baton, it is said that the Colombina mask was designed for an actress who did not want her beautiful face covered.
The Plague Doctor Mask: (Medico della peste)
The Dottor Peste literally translated means ‘The Doctor Plague’ and this mask carries a story with it.
Worn by doctors in the days of the plague in order to shield themselves from germs and bacteria while tending to the sick and diseased.
A rather sordid design, it looks a bit like an evil bird and is one of the most bizarre and recognizable of the Venetian masks. With a long beak and glasses covering the eyes, this mask covers the whole face and neck.
The Volto is a simple mask that, like the Bauta mask, covers the entire face to make your identity anonymous.
The mask is normally just white and without many details and is typically worn with a tricorn (a style of hat popular in the 18th century) and a cloak.
These masks were made of fine wax cloth and so were light and comfortable to wear, making them ideal for a night of socializing and dancing.
The Moretta mask is yet another compelling type of masquerade mask worn mainly by women.
It is a strapless, oval mask made of velvet, which is a really soft type of material.a black oval mask which didn’t allow the wearer to speak.
Centuries ago, the Moretta had to be clutched between the wearer’s teeth, which is why it was often called ‘the mute mask’.
Joker-like, colorful, with a short nose and arched brows, the Arlecchino mask sometimes includes a large headpiece and/or collar, possibly with bells on.
The mask has a low forehead, small eyes, eyebrows slanted in a devilish fashion and a large nose to show intelligence (the mask also includes no mouth piece because of the traditional Commedia fashion).
The mask is painted using the colors of red and black.
Gnaga is an extremely common type of Venetian mask.
It was part of a costume worn by males who wanted to wear women’s clothes at a masquerade party.
The traditional outfit included female attire and a Gnaga mask, which portrayed a female cat.
Venetian masks can be made of leather, porcelain or using the original glass technique. Today, most Italian masks are made with gold leafs and are hand-painted using natural feathers and gems for decoration.
There are tons of street stalls selling these for around 3 euros. Unfortunately, this means they were probably mass produced in China. If you want something a little more authentic, you can purchase masks hand-crafted by Venetian artisans at Ca Macana, Tragiocomica, MondoNovo or Papier Mache.
Make Sure to Experience the Flight of an Angel
Flight of an Angel or “Flight of the dove“, has mid-16th century roots.
The event was created after an acrobat dressed with angel wings tied to a rope was let down the tower, at the end of the descent the Doge himself gave the angel a special gift.
The event was eventually banned and reintroduced in 2001 with a minor celebrity who dresses as an angel and flies (more like zip-line’s) her way to her prince charming at Doge.
The flight marks the beginning of festivities at the Carnevale and is broadcasted worldwide.
Don't Miss the La Festadelle Marie
La Festadelle Marie, which started as a tribute to the sumptuous dowry given to twelve young brides annually, has now become a major event in the Venice carnival.
Twelve young women are chosen as the stars of a parade that marches from San Pietro in Castelloto to Piazza San Marco which is the epicenter of the entire carnival.
It's a time for attendees to flaunt their breathtaking costumes and masks and celebrate the spirit of the most fun festival in Europe.
Now, Carnevale might be coming to a close, and it might sound crazy to start planning ahead for next year. But you would be surprised how fast tickets/accommodations fill up. It’s never too soon to start planning a Carnevale trip. Here are a few tips you should consider...
What to Do About Accommodation
The best advice I can give you about visiting Venice during Carnivale is to ditch the hotel for an Airbnb apartment. If you’re looking to really bring the costs down, share the place with a bunch of friends. This way you can stay within the city centre and pay around €30 a night. Another, although much less desirable option, is staying in Mestre, a bus ride away from Venice.
Make Lunch & Dinner Plans Ahead of Time
A good rule of thumb for visiting Venice to make reservations ahead of time. That becomes doubly important during Carnivale.
Do your homework ahead of time and have some places in mind that are near your hotel or near other places you are visiting.
Your hotel or B&B will undoubtedly have some suggestions as well and will make reservations for you, but make sure you take the time to enjoy some local food. You have to try Frittella & Galani (aka Chiacchiere), which are special sweet treats only made at Carnevale time.
They are sold at bakeries all over town. Chiacchiere are my favorite! Follow your nose if you smell sweet sugared fried dough- you won’t regret it!
Save Your Budget with Free Events
Carnevale’s famous masqurade balls are known to be expensive (the prices start at around €140 and can go up to as high as €500-600), there are also a lot of free events which you can easily find through the Carnevale of Venice website. The main events during Carnival typically include the annual party with a fireworks display at the Arsenal, and various daytime events at The Grand Theatre at St. Mark’s Square, with live music and the best costume contest.
Truth is, Carnivale is the best and the worst moment to visit Venice. It is certainly a unique celebration, but it falls on a season that is relatively cold and wet, and the streets can get really crowded, to the point that you'll have to shove your way through the main streets.
The city gets flooded with a jovial atmosphere, but it's nearly impossible to get on a vaporetto (water boat).
But, despite those few shortcomings, this is a trip you can’t miss out on.
Even when Carnivale isn't open, Venice is eerily beautiful, and distant-feeling even when you’re there. Venice is a intoxicating maze of twisty passages all unique, and the most difficult city to navigate that I have ever found. Yet, with the architecture and unique water passage ways, this is a city you won't mind getting lost in.
Fact is, Venice’s past comes alive during this unique celebration and with such rich roots connecting the past and present/
Carnivale is a glimpse into history that everyone should experience.