Costumes of the carnival in Venice

Carnival in Venice

“Carnevale” is one of the most colorful celebrations in the world!

Carnival in Venice is a one-of-a-kind celebration suspended between past and present with a traditional local allure featuring many events. Among these, the two-day ‘Festa Veneziana’ with its typical masked regattas, the ‘Best Masked Costume Contest’ and the ‘Festa delle Marie’. Each year, Carnival includes celebrations whose history dates back to the times of the ‘Serenissima’, such as the famous eagle flight or the well-known ‘Flight of the Angel‘, to name but a few. Carnival in Venice is the purest example of the perfect meld of tradition, culture and entertainment all in one.

Carnevale season lasts about two weeks, culminating on the day of Carnival (called Martedi Grasso, or Fat Tuesday, in Italian). The weekend before Fat Tuesday usually sees the most parties and events, but during all of Carnevale season, the city of Venice is abuzz with costumed characters, street performers, scheduled concerts and entertainment, boat parades, and food stalls. Even if you don’t attend any of the parties or fancy masquerade balls, it’s definitely a fun time to visit.

Enjoy this video Manlio and I took in Venice at carnival time a few years ago:

This is a magical time in Venice. A visual feast. A giant step back to a time where the rich and famous, and infamous, donned mask and costume to participate in decadent, hedonistic pleasures of pre-lent. Lavish costumes are rented or purchased from talented Venetian ateliers or designed and created at home by talented Carnival attendees. Carnival provides a theatrical backdrop to Venice’s iconic scenery, and everyone in costume is expected to play their part. Venetian costume balls are a highlight of Carnival for those who can afford tickets to party the night away in Venice’s most exclusive private palaces. The year’s most opulent event is the “Il Ballo del Doge”, described by Vanity Fair as “the most sumptuous, refined and exclusive ball in the world.”

Are you looking for the most magical time of the year to visit Venice? Well look no further than “Carnevale” season! This is the time (February/March) of year when a wintry Venice comes alive with magic and mystery all in an effort to have maximum fun before Lent starts. Here are 9 ways to enjoy “Carnevale” in Venice:

  1. Wear a historical Venetian costume. Be sure to don a mask and parade along the alleys, bridges and squares. One can rent costumes anywhere from 400 Euros a day and up.
  2. Once you’ve got the costume, the ultimate “Carnevale” experience is to attend a masked ball. The Luna Hotel Baglioni hosts a 6-hour extravaganza complete with opera performances. Or enjoy Dinner Dansante “Le Menuet” at the Hotel Danieli where a dance master and a baroque quartet will involve people into traditional group dances such as minuets. With a price tag of €500 per person, the masked balls can cost as much to attend as your trip to Venice itself.
  3. Whether you’re going to a ball or not (depending on your budget), don’t miss the chance to learn Cotillion dancing, an essential part of any “Carnevale” costume ball. The Cotillion is a French dance dating back to early 18th century. The lady had a starring role in the “dance-game”: it was her role to entice her desired partner so he would invite her to dance. Little gifts were handed out at the end of the dance.
  4. Take a “Carnevale” themed photo tour of Venice. La Serenissisma is ideal to photograph year-round but with all of the folks parading around in colorful masks and costumes, now is a great time to get out the camera and venture into lesser-known Venice neighborhoods such as Castello and Cannaregio.
  5. Curious about Venetian cocktails? Take a “Carnevale” Pub Crawl. For us, the expensive balls were never quite our cup of tea. Instead, we opt to enjoy other events in the city, from the free shows and costume parades at Piazza San Marco to free guided museum tours and a costumed put crawl. The pub crawl, or giro d’ombra as it’s known in Italian, is very Venetian. A centuries old tradition itself, Venetians would move from bacaro to bacaro enjoying cicchetti (Venetian tapas) and a small glass of wine while socializing. The pub crawl is a great way to spend an evening out. When you visit us in Venice at any time of the year, we love taking our guests on cicchetti crawls!

    "Carnevale" is one of the most colorful celebrations in the world!

    Carnival of Venice

  6. Learn the secrets of Venice’s “Carnevale” with a special walking tour. Follow in the steps of adventurer Giacomo Casanova’s 18th century Venice “Carnevale”. A guide will immerse you in the history of “Carnevale” as well as the use of masks and how they are made. The tour ends with a hot cappuccino and a typical Italian carnival pastry, frittelle.
  7. Although the main events are centered around Piazza San Marco, Carnevale events are held in every sestiere, or neighborhood, of Venice, so be sure to wander into other areas. A fireworks show held in Piazza San Marco culminates Carnevale and the fireworks can be seen from almost anywhere in Venice.
  8. The final week of Carnevale is the busiest time to visit, but festivities are happening long before Fat Tuesday. If you don’t mind missing the biggest festivals, you’ll save some money by visiting during the first week of celebrations.
  9. Enjoy a Vivaldi Concert: A journey back to 18th century Venice isn’t complete without discovering the music from the times when Venice was the pleasure capital of the world. Venetian-born Antonio Vivaldi, is recognized today as one of the greatest Baroque composers. Even Bach studied with Vivaldi and his musical influence spread far and wide. Though Vivaldi concerts are also a quintessential Venetian experience you can attend any time of the year, there’s special Carnival Vivaldi concerts during the Carnival period. The special Carnival concert takes place in the sumptuously decorated Salone Capitolare, where you’ll most certainly feel as though you’re at the official Venice Carnival dinner show and ball, but again minus the extravagant price tag. The concert lasts about 90 minutes, and it’s another excellent way to spend an evening after dinner in Venice. The I Musici Veneziani Carnival Concert is only available during the Carnival period. A Vivaldi concert is a wonderful cultural way to experience for any time you’re visiting Venice.

If you would like a complete Venice Carnival experience, with the activities above for your very own small group of friends or family, contact me

Beautiful costumes of the carnival in Venice

Beautiful costumes of the Carnival in Venice-Photo by Audrey De Monte

Where did the idea of Carnevale come from?

The history of the Carnival of Venice dates back to 1094, when the Doge Vitale Falier first mentioned the word “carnevale” in a document as a way of describing public amusements. In 1162 the Republic of Venice had defeated Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia, in a battle that year and slaughtered a bull and twelve pigs in Piazza San Marco to commemorate the victory. This celebration was around Shrove Tuesday (also known as Fat Tuesday). Even though the celebration of the defeat of the Patriarch of Aquileia grew larger year after year, Carnevale di Venezia wasn’t officially recorded until 1268. The following year, the Senate declared the day before Lent (Shrove Tuesday) a public holiday.

During the 40 days of Lent, parties and eating foods like meat, sugar and fats were not allowed. As a result, people would try to fill up on rich food and drink before Lent. In fact, the word Carnevale comes from the Latin words carnem levare which means “farewell to meat”.

The tradition of wearing a mask started in the 13th century when Venetians would hold celebrations and parties from December 26th until the start of Lent and wear elaborate masks to conceal their identity in everyday life. The wearing of the masks was the only time when the lower and upper classes mingled together. Aristocrats and peasants, disguised by their masks, played out their fantasies together. By the 18th century, Venetians were allowed to wear masks for six months out of the year allowing them to indulge in illicit activities like gambling and clandestine affairs. Black velvet masks, for example, would be worn in “houses of ill repute”, especially gambling parlors, to shield identities.

Venetian Masks were the solution for perfect disguise. Wearing masks let married women mingle with male crowds without revealing their true identities. Masks in the earlier days were rather simple in design and decoration and they often had a symbolic and practical function.  Masks were produced for centuries in Venice by the Early Venetian mascareri and still today are made from papier-mâché, Porcelain and leather, in many different colors and styles.

Venetian Masks can be classified under two major groups: Commedia Dell’Arte and Carnival Masks. Both of these have several characters, some gender specific, and many have legends attached to them. Commedia Dell’Arte is translated from Italian to mean “comedy of professional artists” and was a form of improvisational theater that was popular during the 16th through the 18th centuries. Traveling teams of actors would set a stage outside and provide amusement to passers by juggling, acrobatics, and humorous plays based on a repertoire of established characters with a rough story line called “Canovaccio“. Their performances were improvised and used stock situations such as jealousy, old age, love and adultery.

Carnival in Venice has not always been celebrated. The fall of the Republic in 1798, at the hands of Napoleon, marked the end of the long independence of Venice and the abolition of the many traditions of the Venetian Carnival for about two centuries (during the time when Venice was ruled by the Austrian Hungarian Empire). It wasn’t until 1979 that the Carnevale di Venezia was revived. Modern day Venetians recognized the potential for Carnival to bring money to the city, and the new 10-day long Carnival of Venice was born. Much like historical re-enactments in the US celebrate the victory of important battles, Carnevale di Venezia recreates a time when the Venetian Republic ruled the trade routes and held an elite place in the world. The lavish parties, costumes, masks, food, music and spectacles all tip their hat to the wealthy Venetian merchants of the past.

Today, the Carnival in Venice is an alluring festival that pulls in thousands of spectators; a tradition that casts its spell on whoever crosses its path. Escape from the mundane everyday life and immerse yourself in the fantasy of this amazing festival!  Women sashaying in exquisite gowns and men clad in clever disguises.

“Carnevale” Dates 2022-2025

  • 2022: March 1
  • 2023: Feb.21
  • 2024: Feb. 13
  • 2025: March 4

It’s not Carnival without fatty, greasy, tasty food…!

VENETIAN FRITTELLE FOR CARNIVAL RECIPE

Foods to enjoy during carnival time in Venice, fritelle

Venetian Frittelle for Carnival-Photo by Audrey De Monte

100 g / 2/3 cup raisins

120 ml / 1/2 cup ‘grappa’, ‘eau-de-vie’ or anise liqueur

500 g / 3 2/3 cups plain flour, sifted

Pinch of salt

15 g / 1 tablespoon active dry yeast

80 g / 1/3 cup caster sugar, plus more for dusting

Grated zest of 1 un-waxed lemon

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

50 g / 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

50 g / 1/3 cup candied citrus peel (optional)

240 ml / 1 cup whole milk, lukewarm

Sunflower oil, for frying

Icing sugar, for dusting

Soak the raisins in ‘grappa’ and leave to plump up.

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, yeast and lemon zest. Make a well in the center and break in the eggs, then, using a fork, start to incorporate them into the flour. Add the pine nuts, candied citrus peel (if using) and the raisins with their soaking liquid. Pour in the milk, too, and stir with a wooden spoon until it all comes together into a sticky dough. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in size and very bubbly on the surface.

Next, heat the oil in a deep, medium-sized skillet over a low-medium heat. Once hot (180°C/350°F), grab two tablespoons and use them to shape your ‘frittelle’. Take a dollop of dough as big as a walnut and give it a round-ish shape using both spoons, then slip it into the hot oil. Repeat in batches, frying about 5-6 ‘frittelle’ at the time. Fry them on both sides until dark brown all around. Drain with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a large plate lined with absorbent paper towels.

Leave the ‘frittelle’ to cool before dusting them with icing sugar. They are best enjoyed freshly made.

Audrey helps you make your vacation truly memorable by offering cultural vacations to northern Italy and private tours that promise a personal experience you will not find anywhere else.

About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, how I look at the world and continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages. Western Europe is my backyard, in particular Spain, France, Germany, and Italy—countries where I have spent my life, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working.