Carnival has kicked off and the Grand Wine Tour is helping you discover the world-famous event in Venice. This is the Venice Carnival Travel Guide. Find all the best sites and bites to experience carnevale like a Venetian.

Venice is a city founded on extravagance. La Serenissima’s long history as a wealthy and powerful maritime republic has influenced everything from its lavish architecture to its eye-candy art. The magnificent Byzantine Basilica di San Marco covered in sparkling golden mosaics, the intricate Gothic marble palaces that line the Grand Canal, the intense colours of Renaissance masters Titian and Giorgione, so revolutionary that they were considered almost scandalous: there is nothing about this floating city that is understated.

It is only natural, then, that Venice’s sumptuous Carnival celebrations are nothing if not over the top, famous for elaborate costumes, opulent balls, and festive excess.

The History of Carnevale

a masked couple at Venice Carnival

The Masked Couple – © LG via flickr

Italy’s month-long festival of Carnival—ending with the “Fat Days” from Shrove Thursday (Giovedì Grasso) through Shrove Tuesday (Martedì Grasso) preceding Ash Wednesday—ushers in the forty-day period of Lent (La Quaresima) before Easter Sunday. The specific dates of Carnevale and its final giorni grassi vary annually, as the kick-off depends upon when Easter Sunday falls each year. That said, Carnevale is always celebrated during part or all of the month of February.

Like many Christian festivals, Carnevale had roots in pagan traditions before being co-opted by this rapidly spreading new religion after the 3rd century AD. Through the Middle Ages, the period evolved into a last celebratory bout of bacchanalian and carnal overindulgence before the stark penitence and purification of Lent, and this overindulgence was by far the most bacchanalian and carnal in Medieval Venice.

Carnevale in Venice

For centuries the most famous Carnival celebration in the world, Il Carnevale di Venezia probably began as an annual celebration of a 12th-century military victory that happened to fall during the Carnival season. Over time, the city’s costumes and festivities became increasingly grand, culminating in the unique Baroque style that draws visitors and revellers still today.

a mask for venice carnival

The Mask – © James Gose

Maschere, or costumed characters, are one of the most characteristic aspects of Venice’s celebrations, and eye-popping ensembles are focused around an extravagant mask. Today, Venetian masks come in an endless variety of styles and decorations, but in the past, there were just a few standards, aimed at to maintaining the wearers’ anonymity.

The most quintessential Venetian mask is the Bauta, with a beak-like shape that allows the wearer to eat and speak while wearing it; a red or black floor-length cape and tricorn hat are worn along with the mask to complete its anonymity. Complementing the traditionally masculine Bauta, the feminine Columbina is a half-mask covering only the eyes, nose, and upper cheeks, elegantly decorated and held up with a baton or tied to the head with a ribbon.

Two other historical masks are the Medico della Peste—round eye-holes and prominent nose, worn with a black cloak, white gloves, and a walking stick—and the Volto, a full mask with fixed facial features that were once stark white, but today is often gilded and decorated with lace, feathers, or jewels.

Carnevale Bites

powdered fritole from venice carnival

Powdered Fritole

Frittelle—or frìtole in Venetian dialect—are Venice’s beloved fried cakes and one of Carnevale’s most iconic sweets. Doughnut-like in flavor and texture, these treats are crisp on the outside and slightly chewy inside, and their rich scent wafts over Venice for much of Carnevale. Said to be the creation of Bartolomeo Scappi, Pope Pius V’s personal chef, frittelle were originally made by specialized fritoleri fry shops, once so ubiquitous in Venice that they had their own professional guild. Fritoleri began disappearing from Venetian street corners in the 19th century, but the sweets pop up again each year during Carnevale.

Carnevale Today

a costumed character at venice carnival

Stars and the Moon – © James Gose

For the past few decades, Venice has been promoting Carnevale as a family-friendly tourist event, an excellent way to celebrate the city’s cultural heritage and draw visitors during the frigid winter months. Their efforts have paid off, as it is now one of Italy’s most popular open-air parties, and Venice’s campi and calli are filled with costumed characters, sinful sweets, street musicians and performers, and a delightfully festive air during the weeks before Ash Wednesday.

Though private costume parties and balls are held in some of the most breathtaking historic palaces in Venice, with colorfully costumed characters milling across the city and public entertainment (including costume pageants, music, and fireworks) in Piazza San Marco and the surrounding sestieri, there is plenty to see and do by simply wandering the streets.

Carnevale Sights
Here are the most important (and crowded) events during Venice’s Carnevale celebrations each year: 

The Grand Opening: water shows along the Rio di Cannaregio and Grand Canal on the first Saturday and Sunday.
On Saturday evening, costumed performers float by on boats lit with lanterns and fireworks accompanied by music. On Sunday, a daytime water parade down the Grand Canal features boats decorated by theme, again with fantastic costumes and festive music and entertainment. 

Costume Pageant and Contest: a daily parade through St. Mark’s Square.
Locals and visitors show off their glorious costumes, hoping for a chance to take place in the final selection on the last Sunday of Carnivale. 

Festa delle Marie: traditional ceremony and pageant.
This tradition dates to when the city was ruled by the Doge, and twelve Venetian ladies would compete to receive jewels and a bridal dowry. The pageant is held in San Pietro di Castello and culminates in the Flight of the Angel (see below).

The Flight of the Angel: traditional celebration in Piazza San Marco
The somewhat dubious reward for the winning damsel of the Festa delle Marie is the chance to be dressed as an angel and lowered from the top of the soaring bell tower in Piazza San Marco to the square below, where she greets the Doge during the re-enactment of this centuries-old city ceremony.

The Flight of the Eagle: public celebration in Piazza San Marco
Like during the Flight of the Angel, a beautifully costumed performer glides from the top of the bell tower to Saint Mark’s Square below in the modern addition to the festivities.

The Festa delle Marie Award Ceremony: traditional celebration in Piazza San Marco
The winning “Maria” arrives by boat and receives her crown in one of the final public celebrations of Carnevale.

The Svolo del Leon: closing celebration in Piazza San Marco
Carnevale ends with a tribute to the Leone di San Marco, the historic symbol of Venice. A large lion painted on canvas is lifted up the side of the bell tower in Saint Mark’s Square over the heads of the cheering crowd below.

a landscape of St. Mark's Square in Venice from the water

Landscape of Venice – © James Gose

Balls, pageants, costumes, parades…does it all seem a bit too much? Just remember the unofficial motto of Carnevale: Semel in anno licet insanire! (Once a year you are allowed to go crazy!)

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