Venice Carnival is almost here, so we’ve taken a look at the history and traditions that have made Carnival one of the most spectacular events in Italy. Whether it’s the elaborate masks and costumes, the nights full of dining and dancing or the spectacular performances, Carnival is a truly magical time to visit Venice. The event kicks off on 23 January, but there’s plenty of time to plan your trip for next year – as a Carnival expert.
New to the Carnival? Read our Beginner’s Guide first to get started.
1. Venice Carnevale is around 1,000 years old.
Venice Carnival has been in full swing since as early as the 12th century. Traditionally, the Carnival was the time Venetians went all out before Lent. Noble families and the poor united in donning elaborate masks and costumes for a whirlwind of hedonistic balls, feasts and gambling, which could go on for months. The celebrations took place in and around St. Mark’s Square, a tradition that continues to this day in the 10 days leading up to Shrove Tuesday.
2. Carnival masks gave Venetians social freedom
Why Venetians began wearing masks is a mystery, but we know one thing for sure – they loved them. Masks symbolised freedom from the city’s strict social hierarchy. Poor people could hide their identities and celebrate as wildly as the rich, and members of noble families could gamble and speak their mind on politics with their reputations intact.
3. You can decorate your own Carnival mask in Venice
Over the centuries, mask makers created increasingly elaborate and detailed designs, often gilded and decorated with feathers and unique carvings. Masks can be made from glass, leather or porcelain. Carnival masks today are breathtaking – beautifully crafted and in a variety of traditional styles. There are mask makers everywhere in Venice where you can buy authentic, handcrafted masks for anywhere between £30 and £150. One of the best known is Ca’Macana in Dorsoduro, where you can decorate your own.
4. There are more than eight different types of Carnival masks
There are many types of Carnival masks, each with a unique history. Over the centuries, different styles of masks have come in and out of fashion. Look out for the following masks when you visit:
One of the most common, the bauta is traditionally plain white, covering the whole face with a slightly beaked mouth to let the wearer eat, drink and speak without removing it. Today, the masks are often gilded and beautifully painted.
The Colombina is a half-mask that covers mainly the eyes, and was popular with women who didn’t want to cover their whole face. The mask gives a little more freedom and is an easier style for beginners to wear, usually tied in place with a ribbon.
– The plague doctor
One of the more sinister and recognisable of the Venetian masks is the plague doctor, or medico della peste. The long, protruding beaks were based on masks real plague doctors wore to treat patients. The beak would have been filled with soaked sponges to stop them from breathing in the virus.
5. Costumes could be banned for concealing too well
Traditional Venice Carnevale costumes are inspired by fashion from all over the world, with towering headdresses and intricate accessories and jewels. Mantles were popular cloaks worn by men and women, worn over the shoulders and reaching down almost to the floor. These did such a good job of disguise, they were banned in the 18th century in case of Carnival-goers concealing weapons – or men dressing up as women.
Venice is full of ateliers and fancy dress shops where you can rent costumes (book your Venice Carnival tickets with us and we can recommend a few of our favourites), although many visitors go for a simple cape they can bring from home. The important thing is that you join in!
Venice Carnevale 2018
Now you know how to dress for the occasion, are you ready to experience Venice Carnival for yourself? There’s plenty of time to plan for next year, and Citalia offers tickets to the biggest events, including the opening celebration, which features il volo dell’angelo (the flight of the angel) where an acrobat swings from St. Mark’s bell tower. There are galas and balls almost daily, which include dinner, dances and performances.
Click here to find out more about our holidays to Venice.