Carnem Vale, Latin for “Goodbye, flesh,” sounds scary? Nope, it’s a party. Every winter, Venice returns to tradition for Carnevale, a centuries-old celebration, which initially began as as simple Lenten kickoff festival, is an epic international event or better yet, a 16-day costume party spilling into every calle and campo.
The History of Carnevale
Back in the day, Carnevale was a no-holds-barred bacchanalian binge that started the day after Christmas and ended in the wee hours of Ash Wednesday. Everyone was masked and costumed, flirtatious and anonymous, and did whatever and whoever they wanted. Celebrants, and by that everyone who could grab a mask, lost track of time and partied until the Doge said stop. It was so debauched that Napoleon banned Carnevale during his occupation of La Serenissima (circa 1805) and the shut down lasted nearly 200 years.
Thank goodness for the 20th century because the Carnevale is back with two full weeks of dress-up, masquerade balls, parades, acrobatic displays and other surprises. Guests book reservations at balls and pick out costumes months in advance, hotels are packed and so are the streets- just like Rio’s Carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, but instead of beads, samba dancing and land-based floats, Carnevale is all about style and a line up of highly anticipated events.
Carnevale is for everyone. The city hosts free events in Piazza San Marco and throughout the city, as well as pay-to-play parties. As soon as you’ve decided to come to Carnevale, purchased your flights and booked your hotel, book your ball tickets. Details for all events and balls are easily found on Carnevale di Venezia.
Do you have to stay the entire 16 days? Absoutely no, that would be insane- both mentally and financially. I’d suggest taking a long weekend or book the last few days of Carnevale. If I had my way, I would book the last Saturday to Martedi Grasso, leaving on Ash Wednesday morning. That way I could max out on all the city events, and hit up the final crazy parties. And yes, I would include one ball because this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Do you need a costume? Of course you do. You’ll want to be part of the party, so get masked, wigged and dressed, and be creative. Carnevale is all about the disguise. The most popular and historic masks are the least decadent: the bauta (for men), a slightly intimidating all-white mask covering only the eyes and nose — easy for eating and drinking, and the moretta (for women), a rounded, all-black mask that creates an intoxicating anonymity.
Though masks are traditional simple they can be equally as elaborate as the luxurious costumes. Remember anything goes -traditional or completely creative, over-the-top and risqué. Order your costumes for pickup (and even hotel delivery) from Ca’ Macanà and Ca’ del Sol.
Masquerade Balls are the main draws to Carnevale. Decadent evenings of lavish anonymity, a ball is pay-for-play parties with dinner, performances and dancing hosted at some of the city’s most beautiful palaces. The coveted Ballo del Doge is the hottest and most expensive ticket in the city. As long as you book, you can participate. Other balls include Lunatic Dinner, Gran Ballo Mascherada, Casanova Cocktail Party and Minuetto.
Keep in mind that Carnevale is Venice at its busiest so once you book your hotel, book your ball and restaurants. Here are some of favorites in my Biennale article.
Festa Veneziana Sull’Acqua
Venice is a water city so it’s logical that Carnevale kicks off with a floating parade, more like a boat race. The Festa Veneziana Sull’Acqua is a colorful, daylong regatta that courses its way through Canareggio neighborhood.
Corteo della Festa delle Marie
The Festa delle Marie (Marias of the Festival) is Carnevale tradition. Based on the 10th-century kidnapping and subsequent rescue of 12 brides from the church of San Pietro, contemporary carnveale “reenacts” the event in a parade in which 12 young women dressed in period garb promenade from Via Garibaldi to Piazza San Marco. In the square, judges declare a “Maria of the Festival”, considered the hostess of year.
Crowds swarm into the Piazza San Marco at the start of Carnevale to attend the Volo dell’Angelo, (Flight of the Angel), which features the aforementioned Maria of the Festival. This 400-year tradition sees the “Maria” descend like an angel from St. Mark’s bell tower to the center of the piazza with the help of some sturdy wires. Arrive at the piazza before noon to claim your viewing spot, or grab a seat at iconic Caffè Florian and pay dearly for a coffee and glimpse of an angel.
The last Sunday of Carnevale is flight of fancy, literally. Piazza San Marco crowds for the Volo dell’Aquila, a whimsical acrobatic flight across St. Mark’s Square, followed by the ceremony awarding Maschera pìu bella, the prettiest mask of all of the Carnevale parades.
This is it, what you’ve been waiting for: Martedi Grasso, also known as Fat Tuesday. Sixteen days of revelry culminate in Piazza San Marco with the Svolo del Leon, a ritual celebration honoring St. Mark’s lion, the emblem of the city.