A brief history of Carnevale in the most fascinating city in the world.
Although Carnevale is associated with being a kind of ‘pre-party’ before the Catholic period of Lent, it is suspected that its origins, like many Christian holidays, lies in a Pagan festival called Saturnalia. The Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was a holiday to celebrate the god Saturn, who was responsible for ensuring a good Spring harvest. Romans would dress up and party with huge banquets in the streets and in people’s homes. Gambling, sometimes outlawed, was now encouraged and the social hierarchy was completely relaxed for the festivities, with everyone from slaves to noblemen taking part alongside each other - wearing costumes and drinking wine with each other.
By the 1700s, Venice’s Carnevale had grown both in popularity and scale. During this period, Carnevale began on the first Sunday in October and lasted until Shrove Tuesday (usually mid-February to early March) - nearly half a year of masquerading and celebrating! Gambling and debauchery were rife, and people of all walks of life mixed and mingled across the island’s many houses and casinos. Sound familiar?
Sadly, Venice’s Carnevale celebrations came to a halt in 1797. It was in this year that Napoleon conquered Venice and put an abrupt end to the entire Venetian Republic. Carnevale celebrations and even the act of wearing a mask became strictly forbidden.
While Carnevale was still secretly celebrated by some locals after its ban, the Carnevale we know today officially began in 1979 as an event supported by the Italian government to promote Venetian culture and boost tourism.
Our modern Carnevale lasts around two weeks and kicks off with a grand regatta on the canals of Canareggio (one of our favorite areas of Venice). There are giant decorated pontoons, light and fire shows, and performances - like a huge parade but on the water!
On the first Saturday of Carnevale, there is a traditional Feste delle Marie procession, where twelve young women from the Veneto region are selected to glide down the city’s canals in gondolas from San Pietro church in Castello before arriving at Piazza San Marco. The women are all fitted with bespoke traditional costumes by one of Venice’s top ateliers, and the modern version of this event ends with a sort of beauty contest, where one woman is chosen to be next year’s Carnevale ‘angel’, the star of the Flight of the Angel event, which we’ll cover next!
The Flight of the Angel is another Carnevale tradition, which takes place on the first Sunday of the festivities. Historically, this would have been a foreign guest who descended via a rope from the Campanile bell tower to greet the Doge (the ruler of Venice). After some tragic incidents, the person was replaced with a wooden dove, until the tradition was revived in 2001 with the angel (securely fastened with modern equipment) being last year’s winner of the Feste delle Marie. It is a highly anticipated event, which sees Piazza San Marco flood with residents and visitors, so we always recommend getting there a bit early if you want to witness this homage to tradition!
These big events kick off the grand masquerades and balls that take place in the following weeks. Simply strolling around town and people-watching in the piazzas is a spectacle, but the real glamor and excess take place in some of the city’s most exclusive and lavish private palazzos which, for one night only, turn into venues for Carnevale balls. While some balls are invite-only, many of them are ticketed and open to the public. These grand events sell out very quickly and tickets can be difficult to secure. Here at I for Italia we have access to many of these events, ensuring we can provide our clients with the Carnevale experience of their dreams!
Beyond the official public events, there are also local Venetian traditions surrounding Carnevale. It’s not uncommon to see young children dressed up in costumes - similar to American Halloween, with less horror and gore. Families and children will pop glitter and confetti canisters in the campi (public squares), unleash silly string on each other (and passers-by!), and make colorful chalk creations on the pavements. There are also the delicious food traditions of Carnevale! Frittelle, little fried balls of dough with raisins and pine nuts, are the most famous - and a must-eat! Some are traditional, and you’ll also find versions stuffed with cream, or even nutella! Another favourite Carnevale sweet treat is galani, super thin fried sheets of dough (which resemble lasagne pasta!) liberally coated with powdered sugar.
Dressing the Part
Masks are, of course, essential to any Carnevale outfit. And, with so many options available, it can be very hard to choose! Some of the most traditional masks include:
The Colombina: A half-mask that covers the eye area, popular for women.
The Baùta: The most traditional Venetian mask, which covers the full face and has an angled bottom to allow the wearer to eat while still masked. The name refers not only to the mask but to the outfit worn with it (a black cape and a large black tricorn hat, which gave the wearer total anonymity).
The Medico della Peste: A mask featuring a long nose or ‘beak’ which is traditionally associated with the plague doctors who wore these masks to protect their noses from breathing ‘bad air’ during the plague outbreaks.
Of course, you can also choose a more modern mask - or a twist on an old classic. Whatever the case, be sure you choose a mask from one of Venice’s authentic artisans. A true handmade Venetian mask is hand painted and one of a kind, it will never have a twin! We love Ca’Macana for their huge selection of unique masks - everything from the most simple white papier-mache creations to giant headpieces complete with ostrich feathers.
Carnevale is all about indulgence, and most attendees and visitors choose to dress in the style of the 18th century when dresses were wide and wigs were high! Think brocade textiles, lashings of ribbons, frills, bold colors, and beyond! You can find countless ateliers in Venice that specialize in baroque costumes. You can have a bespoke gown or suit made exactly to your requirements or, if you prefer, costumes can be rented by the day or week. Whatever the case, the best ateliers and shops get booked out quite far in advance, so if you’re planning to attend make sure you get in touch with us as soon as possible so we can walk you through the steps and timings of ensuring you have the most incredible, lavish, and authentic Carnevale possible.
If you’re interested in joining an I for Italia small group trip to Venice to experience the wonders of Carnevale, you’re in luck! We’re making plans for an exclusive tour in 2024. Drop us an email to register your interest and you’ll be the first to receive details!
Before you go, please don't forget: A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale, during Carnival anything goes!