Venice Carnival: What You Need To Know

Every year Venice indulges in a 10-day masked ball – a Lententide "farewell to the flesh" – when a combination of poseurs and voyeurs come to wallow in the city's ghostly beauty. Here's what you should know before booking a trip...
Venetian Carnival. Photo: Shutterstock
Venetian Carnival. Photo: Shutterstock


“A man only reveals himself when wearing a mask.” - Oscar Wilde 

The black cloak, tricorn hat, white mask and other rather sinister garb identified with Carnevale di Venezia date back to the 18th century when the commedia dell’arte was in vogue. In the final century of the decadent, drifting Republic, Carnevale was extended to six months, and Venetians wore these costumes from December to June. Under this guise of anonymity, commoner and aristocrat were interchangeable, husbands and wives could pursue illicit love affairs. Things got so out of hand that Carnevale was eventually banned.

Today’s Carnevale, revived only in 1979 and held in February or March, is somewhat more restrained. Nonetheless, this is one time of year that the city really comes to life, with street parties, masked balls, pageants, special events and visitors from all over Europe. To buy an quality mask, visit a traditional made-to-measure mask shop, where they can whip you up anything from a brightly coloured Harlequin to a Medusa wreathed in snakes, or even a sinister death mask. The most traditional masks are made of leather or papier mâché. Speak to one of our local experts today and let us plan a tailor-made trip to Venice for you.

Carnival in Venice

Where to party

The carnival opens on Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) in the presence of thousands of masqueraders, with a different theme each year. During the 10-day spectacle leading up to Shrove Tuesday, revellers come tumbling out of every alley, with the sound of Renaissance and Baroque music echoing from every courtyard. Pantomime, operetta, concerts and literary readings are held in theatres and in the open-air spaces of the city campi. Campo San Polo, one of the largest squares in the city, is a popular site for outdoor events, thus maintaining a role it has played since medieval times. Many of the finest masked balls, fireworks and historical happenings are led by the Compagnie della Calza, the local carnival companies. Our local experts know where the best Carnival parties are – let us plan a trip for you today

One high point of the Carnevale di Venezia is a grand masked ball, which is often held at La Fenice theatre. Revellers then move on to private parties or, in the case of many celebrities, to the ball at the Cipriani across the water.

Another big dance event takes place in Piazza San Marco on Shrove Tuesday. The theme of the dance changes each year. In the past, the midnight fasting bell would ring out from San Francesco della Vigna, signalling an end to the festivities and the onset of atonement. The end is signalled when the effigy of Carnival is burnt on Piazza San Marco. 

Spirit of resistance

These days, Venice Carnival is often dismissed as crassly commercialised, but Venetian traditionalists view it differently. The leader of a venerable Carnival company sees the event as saving his city: “Life in Venice is inconvenient and costly. With the Carnival, we give a positive picture and show the pleasure of living here. Carnival is a form of resistance. By resisting the temptation to leave, we are saving the spirit of the city for future generations.”

This article was originally published on February 14, 2014

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