The Venice Carnival, with its processions, masked balls and general feelings of merriment, is one of the world’s most recognisable events, when the streets, plazas and canals of this atmospheric city take on a completely different hue.
Although Carnival has been around since at least 1268, it has been revitalised during the last 20 years, after being outlawed during the time of Mussolini. Even before then, though, it had been in decline for almost 200 years. Nowadays, however, it has recaptured its important position in the Venetian calendar – one of the undoubted highlights of the year. The 2011 Carnival will take pace between 26th February and 8th March.
It is customary for Carnival to begin two weeks before Ash Wednesday, finishing on Shrove Tuesday or, as it’s more commonly known in Latin countries, Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday.
One of the defining characteristics of the Venetian Carnival is, of course, the ubiquitous mask wearing tradition. Formerly, simply designed papier-mâché creations, they have evolved through the years into wonderfully ornate, and often dramatic, works of art. The mask, along with a cape, hood and cloak, has long been part of the Carnival, probably because they all allowed the wearers to overindulge themselves in total anonymity. Most masks were designed so that they were quite light – and did not interfere with the quintessential carnival pursuits of drinking, eating and flirting. Now, it’s common for visitors to either bring their own masks to Venice or, if you want to be really authentic, find your way to the Campo Santo Stefano when the Mercato delle maschere e dei costumi Veneziani is in full swing and you can pick up some genuine hand-crafted creations – not all at exorbitant prices.
On the first Sunday of Carnival, there is a truly spectacular and unique opening ceremony, The Flight of the Angel. This involves an ‘angel’ flying into St Mark’s Square from the top of the Campanile, swinging on harnesses. In recent years this has tended to be a ‘celebrity’, which either adds or detracts to the magic. It depends whether you consider Coolio, the 2008 ‘angel’, to be sufficiently angelic, I suppose; he did at least wear a heavenly white suit on his rather cumbersome descent, though.
The Venice Carnival now consists of almost two complete weeks of masquerades, processions, music, dance, street theatre and traditional ceremony and all of the city’s square and streets – along with the canals – burst into spectacular life. St Mark’s Square is obviously the focal point for much of the activity – although there are some who find it difficult to appreciate the sight of a giant screen on the Campanile and a similarly imposing tent selling cocktails – especially Bellinis, the carnival-goers favourite. The stage in the centre of the square is used for all manner of special events during the Carnival, such as Parades of Costumes, which everyone is invited to participate in. Other special occasions include a profusion of Masked Balls and Gala Dinners. As might be expected, prices for these range from the reasonable to the extremely expensive but full details can always be found on the official carnival website along with a full calendar of events.
Getting to Venice is now easier than it has ever been. The city’s main airport, Marco Polo, is located on the Venice Lagoon and, if you sit on the right hand side of the plane, you will be treated to tremendous views as you come into land. At the time of writing there are numerous budget airlines (and national carriers) serving Marco Polo from around Europe. Others fly into nearby Treviso airport which is a pleasant 30 minute drive away from the city.
Once you are in Venice, there are many hotels offering accommodation packages during the Carnival in Venice – the official website mentioned above has almost 300 to choose from.
The Venice Carnival in its current guise was a masterpiece of planning by the tourist authorities designed to attract visitors to Venice at a time of the year when their numbers would otherwise be strictly limited. However, it has developed into a genuine festival occasion and the city is a vibrant place to be at carnival time. Carnival might be associated with excess after excess – but in Venice the excesses are very sophisticated, picturesque and always engaging.