Venice: Celebration Time

One of Europe’s most historic festivals returns to Venice each winter, enlivening the season with colour and frivolity. Here’s how to get into the spirit of Carnevale.

Words by Brian Johnston


Just as winter’s misty greyness envelops the city of canals in monochrome and chilliness, Carnevale comes to town in an explosion of colour andmusic. In St Mark’s Square fire-tossers and jugglers busk, and knights of old joust.

Street theatre entertains in hidden piazzas, and candlelight twinkles from Renaissance palaces, where costume balls and gala dinners continue long into the night. Pull on a beak-nosed carnival mask, don a harlequin costume and set off into the shadowy streets to discover the drama, mystery and decadence of old Venice come alive.


Carnevale is over 800 years old. It began in 1162 and became increasingly renowned for its wild extravagance as the centuries passed, featuring such frivolities as masked balls, bull baiting, gambling and illicit liaisons. By the 18th century, the hedonistic partying continued for over two months. The arrival of dour Napoleon in 1797 – after which Venice lost its trading wealth and independence – saw Carnevale fall into decline, and it was abandoned altogether in the 1930s.


Carnevale was revived in 1979, admittedly in part to give the low tourist season a boost, but also as a showcase of living Venetian history and culture. It now runs over a moveable 10 days immediately prior to Shrove Tuesday (January 23 to February 9 this year). It opens with a parade through the city, called Festa delle Marie, on the first Friday of Carnevale; an afternoon masked procession from St Mark’s Square is a gorgeous spectacle the following day.

Few objects are more associated with Carnevale than its masks, available for sale year-round in Venice, from elaborate and expensive works of art made by local craftsmen to cheap reproductions from Chinese factories. They represent characters from Italy’s commedia dell’arte, a type of improvisational, comic theatre once performed outdoors. The most recognisable masks are those of the harlequin clown and the more sinister, long-beaked plague doctor. Traditionally, carnival masks were made of leather, glass and particularly porcelain, though these days they’re mostly papier-mâché. They’re typically brightly coloured and adorned with gold leaf, rhinestones, crystals and feathers, though many Venetians actually prefer plain white volto masks.


Head to St Mark’s Square for a display of very elaborate masks and carnival costumes: this is where revellers compete for the year’s best costume and have their photos taken against the backdrop of Venice’s great monuments. Linger at one of the square’s famous cafés, from which you’ll have a grandstand seat beside a passing parade of costumed counts, harlequins and courtesans in hooped skirts. Many carnival-goers also wear sweeping cloaks called tabarro that block out winter chills and conceal the costumed glamour beneath.

St Mark’s Square is the epicentre of carnival entertainment. One of its more amusing spectacles is the Volo dell’Angelo (or ‘flight of the angel’) when the winner of the Carnevale beauty pageant gets the (dubious) honour of
plummeting from the Campanile on a zip wire. There are also games of calcio storico, a rambunctious precursor of football played in medieval times. More recently, some carnival events have been held in the old Venetian shipyards (Arsenale), whose quays are lit in son-et-lumière style. Bands and buskers perform, dances are held and marine
pageants float in the water.


The highlight of Carnevale’s social calendar is the Grand Masked Ball, sometimes called the Doge’s Ball, held in a different palazzo each year and open to anyone who wears a costume and mask. Even if you don’t have an ‘in’ to the parties held by the cream of Venetian society – top of the lot might be the extravaganza at Palazzo Flangini – there are plenty of ways to enjoy Carnevale. Concerts are held in St Mark’s Square and several of the city’s churches, and ice-skating enlivens Campo San Polo. Costumed actors give tours in which they re-enact moments from Venice’s turbulent history, bringing to life the rambunctious stories of the doges, Napoleon and notorious lover Giacomo Casanova. And everywhere visitors wander, getting into the spirit of the world’s biggest fancy-dress party.

As a grand finale, a historical parade on a flotilla of boats and gondolas is held along the Grand Canal in the evening, illuminated only by the flickering of thousands of candles in one of the most evocative moments of Carnevale. Then fireworks bloom, the city packs up its glitter and gilt, and Venice’s moment of flamboyance is over for another year.

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From Colours February 2016


5 Senses – Sound

This historic landmark and one of Italy’s preeminent opera houses saw premieres of works from the likes of Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi. Its name means ‘phoenix’, rather apt considering it was destroyed by fire in 1996 but rose from the ashes after renovations. This month features chamber music, Giuseppe Verdi’s operas La Traviata and lesser-known Stiffelio, and French composer Hervé’s comic opera Knights of the Round Table. The opera season runs until June.