The Venice Carnival
Updated: Nov 14
Visiting Venice during Carnival has been a bucket-list item for a very long time. As a child at school, there was a yearly carnival which was always a fun occasion to dress up and play. As an adult, I look back at these memories fondly, and have been wanting to see what this whole carnival affair is about!
The origins of Carnival are believed to have come from Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, celebrating the change of seasons, or held in honour of the God of Wine, Bacchus. These days, Carnival is held in the days before the Catholic period of Lent. The word Carnival is thought to originate from the Latin "carne vale" which means "farewell to meat"; Basically, I take it that Carnival is a time of excessive celebrations before a more austere religious tradition.
Thus every February, Venice holds its famous carnival. One hears about Venetians dressed up in colourful epoch costumes, wearing hand-crafted masks, about celebrations held in the squares with performances, and boat parades in the grand canal, and even about galas and extravagant parties. For a few weeks, it seems that the tranquil city of Venice transforms into a flashy party central. My curiosity was piqued, and I had to check it out!
The program for the Venice Carnival is published in advance on an official website so one can plan their trip and know what will be happening on their chosen dates. It's a great tool to use as the city holds multiple events throughout the 2 week celebration period. There is often an "opening weekend" called "pre-carnival" which holds the famous boat parade events ahead of the official Carnival start date. We went at that time and had a wonderful weekend!
There were two events held on the canal during pre-carnival. The first one was the water-party show which consisted of a gigantic decorated vessel that floated down the grand canal. Multiple performers were onboard, wearing costumes and putting on a cirque-inspired show with fire, hoops, and acrobatics. We were lucky to stand right on the canal's edge and had a great view!
On Sunday, there was the boat parade where hundreds of Venetians gathered wearing costumes of all sorts (pictured above). There was a real sense of celebration with everyone laughing, and having fun. I don't think there were any rules for the costumes, everyone could just turn up wearing what they fancied. We saw people disguised as playing cards, emojis, animals, Disney characters...etc.
Around Venice, there were also many performances happening in the piazzas. Some of them even held stages. There were children throwing confetti everywhere and crowds gathered around the various performers to see their shows. We saw masked people walking around on stilts and also a puppet show...even though this was geared towards children, many adults also had a good time!
My favourite part of the Carnival was getting to see Venetians wandering around the streets and Piazza San Marco in period costumes and masks, suggestive of what was worn in the 18th century. They looked very elegant. Putting together such extravagant costumes surely must have taken a lot of thought and time! What impressed me the most was how patient they were with the crowds of tourists fighting to get pictures.
It is said that in Venice, wearing a mask served the dual purpose of concealing one's identity and removing any social differences in the process. For some time, one could thus pretend to be whoever and do whatever they wanted. This practice became so popular that apparently, the Venetian government had to step in and restrict the use of masks!
Since the 12th century, Venetians have been able to create many different types of masks. Some traditional masks include:
The Commedia dell'Arte mask: these are the masks portraying various overemphasised expressions. These are often used in artistic performances such as at the theatre.
The Bauta mask: this one can be identified by the square jawline and triangular chin. It was usually worn by men.
The Colombina mask: a half-mask covering the upper part of the face. It can be tied by a ribbon or held with a stick.
The Volto mask: hiding the whole face, this mask conceals its wearer's identity fully.
The Plague Doctor mask: with a very long pointy nose, this mask was used by doctors during the various plagues that hit the city. It was believed that this mask could "shield" the doctor from infections when treating patients.
The Moretta mask: an oval-shaped mask with two slits for the eyes. This mask was reserved for women.
There are many other types of masks, especially nowadays with the huge demand created by tourists. Mask shops can be found all over Venice, and there is no limit to the imagination when it comes to creating! We saw lots of styles of masks, including some animal shapes (dogs and cats amongst others), scary masks that would belong in horror movies or symbolic ones like the sun and the moon. It's quite fascinating, and one could spend some time admiring the craftsmanship.
During the Venice Carnival, many other events take place. "The Feast of the Maries" traditionally celebrated the blessing of 12 beautiful but poor girls who were given a dowry by a rich Venetian family. Today, it is more of a popular parade. Another important event is the "Flight of the Angel". This originates from a Turkish man who, as a tribute to the Doge (highest political personality in the Republic of Venice) walked on a rope from his boat to the top of St Mark's Tower. Today, acrobats perform this wearing angel wings, hence the event's name.
Costume shows and contests happen almost daily during Carnival. What's fun is that anyone can join in. Among the locals, we also saw many tourists playing along and wearing masks and costumes. Most events are also free to view. This truly makes for a unique and fun weekend getaway!