The Carnival of Venice (or Carnevale di Venezia in Italian) is one of the most anticipated festivals in the world. What’s so special about this two-week long celebration? Find out by learning a bit about its history and traditions. I’m also including a section about the specific carnival of Venice masks and costumes. And of course, you’ll find all the details for the 2018 Venice Carnival below too.
A Brief History of the Venetian Carnival
The Venetian Carnival has a long and turbulent history. The earliest mentions of it go back as far as 1094. It then became an official public celebration in 1296. As many celebrations, also this one has its origins in pagan cultures. Some say it goes back to celebrating the change of seasons from winter to spring. Others mention the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and also the Greek Dionysian festival. Today it is basically a chance to let your hair down one last time during the two weeks before lent starts – even for those who don’t celebrate lent.
The idea behind the traditional Venice carnival masks was to make differences in class and status disappear. Regrettably, some people abused the custom and used the disguise to commit crimes. This forced the authorities to introduce stricter regulations to protect citizens during what was mean to be a happy period. Thanks to the new laws, the festival successfully served as an uplifting event for many years. Unfortunately, the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 also spelled the end of the annual tradition. It was outlawed for almost 200 years! Since 1979, Venetians as well as tourists have been able to enjoy it once again every year.
The Modern Carnival of Venice
Today, visitors from all over the world come to Venice to take part in the colorful celebrations. Some people dress up and actively participate while others prefer to watch the spectacle unfold and just take pictures.
Venice Carnival Masks
I went to the Carnival of Venice for the first time in 2017. And I had no idea how much effort people put into dressing up! We went during the week when none of the official big festivals were happening and I didn’t expect to see much. I was so wrong. Venetians and people from all over the world gather during carnival and show off their incredible costumes. Some are tourists and just join in the fun one time. Others do this every year and have websites and Facebook pages to show off their costumes. They strike poses in front of famous buildings, fountains, town squares, and bridges. Tourists quickly surround them and start taking pictures. It’s quite something!
There are many different types of masks. The Plague Doctor is a famous and kind of scary mask. It’s the one all the way to the left with the long beak. Originally doctors wore this type of mask while treating patients during the black plague. The Columbina is usually worn by women. You can see an example below (second from the left). It only covers the top part of the face and is often highly decorated. The Bauta is the next one. It is very square, has a prominent nose and no mouth. It covers the whole face and is mostly worn by men. The iconic full-face mask shown to the right is called Volto. It covers the whole face and can be worn by men and women. There are many more variations, but these are the top four I would say.
Carnival of Venice Costumes
Of course, if you want to blend in with the carnival crowd, your costume isn’t complete with just a mask. Every mask has a specific costume that goes with it, so don’t go mixing and matching at will. You can try to order a costume online, but your best bet is probably buying or renting one locally. There are many stores that rent fantastic complete costumes for the duration of carnival. Instead of just taking pictures of the others, you’ll be the one being photographed! Just strike a pose anywhere around Saint Mark’s square and people will start taking pictures of you.
Venice Carnival Famous Events
There are many events worth attending but two of the most famous public events are the Festa delle Marie and the Flight of the Angel.
The Festa delle Marie is a very old (and slightly complicated) tradition. Once a year on a specific day, twelve beautiful and poor girls were chosen by the wealthy to have their dowry sponsored and were thus able to celebrate their wedding all together. During one of these annual celebrations in 943, the brides were kidnapped by pirates and later rescued. The Festa delle Marie was subsequently created to celebrate their rescue. From then on, twelve beautiful girls, all renamed Maria for the occasion, would put on beautiful clothes and parade through Venice. A modern version of this tradition became part of the carnival again in 1999. Today, the Marias wear historical Venetian costumes and walk through the city, hoping to be chosen to be the Maria of the Year on the last day of the Carnival.
The Flight of the Angel (Il Volo dell’Angelo) started with a Turkish acrobat who astounded the audience by walking on a rope from the bell tower down to the Doge’s balcony. In the following years, to make the trick more theatrical, professional acrobats started to perform it dressed as angels. This is the origin of the name, the Flight of the Angel. After a tragedy in which one of the acrobats died, wooden doves became the only “creatures” allowed to perform the trick. The event was renamed as the Flight of the Dove and as such it was reinstated as a part of the modern carnival. In 2001, the decision was made to reintroduce people – this time securely attached to a steel cable to avoid another tragedy. Since 2011 the person who “flies down” has been no other than the Maria of the Year winner from the previous year. The angel of the 2018 edition of the festival will be Elisa Costantini. The event will take place on February 4, 2018.
Venice Carnival 2018 Highlights
Visitors from outside of Venice are urged by the city to make their hotel reservations quite a bit in advance. Finding accommodations in the city during this period can be a big challenge. However, you can also stay in other cities nearby and go by train. It’s probably the easiest way if you’re not staying in the city. The main train station in Venice is called Santa Lucia. Once you are there, you can take a water taxi or just walk to the other famous places in the city. You’ll see masked and costumed people everywhere, but the big gatherings are around Saint Mark’s square and all along the water behind the square.
The Carnival of Venice in 2018 will take place between January 27 and February 13. You can visit the Venetian carnival anytime during these two weeks and are basically guaranteed to walk around the city and see many, many people dressed in costumes and masks. Of course, there are also many private balls and lots of public events worth attending. Make sure to book the private ones in advance as tickets are limited. As for the public ones…. Make sure to arrive early. The city is packed!
Double-check the official Venice carnival page for all the current details, but the following are a few highly publicized highlights.
On the first day of the official Carnival celebrations, January 27, visitors can see part one of a two-day water show: the Festa Veniziana on the Water. The second part of the water show takes place the following day. The show is full of acrobats, clowns and exotic animals and is basically a circus on the water. Another eventful day is February 3. It’s the date of the annual Festa delle Marie (see above for details), but also of the first daily costume competition, a tradition that concludes with a grand finale on February 11.
The Flight of the Angel (see above for details) happens on February 4. The Flight of the Eagle (Il Volo dell’Aquila) is another opportunity to see a person “flying down” from the bell tower to St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco). This takes place on February 11.
For those looking for more private entertainment, there is a fancy official dinner & ball that takes place on many evenings during the carnival. The event takes place in the palace Ca’ Vendramin Calergi. Guests can only attend dressed in appropriate costumes, which can be obtained with the help of local rental services. The organizers will treat them to great food, music, and entertainment by ballet dancers and other artists. Those looking for tickets can find them on the official website.
The Carnival celebrations come to a close with the coronation of the new Maria on February 13. It’s always sad to say goodbye but the good news is that it will take place again the following year!
Can’t wait to plan a trip or want to read a romance set in Venice? Check out my suggestions from Amazon below.
Interested in other Italian traditions? Read about how Italians celebrate on New Year’s Eve. Or read about la Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. And of course, I’d love for you to subscribe to my newsletter below.