Carnevale di Venezia: masks, mystery and mesmerizing shows
From February 16th to March 5th, the most anticipated event on the Venetian calendar will once again delight the audience with a fabulous program full of masks, mystery, and mesmerizing shows. This alone is proof enough that February is the best month to visit Venice. Carnevale Venezia 2019 kicks off with the traditional Festa Veneziana sull’Acqua, a stunning musical and acrobatic spectacle on the water, and concludes on the same high note with the flight of the lion in St. Mark’s Square. In between, there are countless fascinating events to enjoy, from glamorous balls and parades to regattas, live DJ music, food fairs, carnival related exhibitions, and, of course, the emblematic mask & costume contests. Most of the celebrations revolve around Piazza San Marco, but, for a truly unforgettable evening, make sure you snag a ticket at one of the exclusive masked balls held in the city’s majestic palazzi.
The Women’s Regatta on the Grand Canal by Gabriel Bella
The origins of the Carnevale di Venezia date back a very long time, but it is not one hundred percent clear when this would have been. Most sources mention 1162 when Venice celebrated the victory against the Patriarch of Aquileia, while other sources claim that the Doge Vitale Falier (the chief magistrate in the former republic of Venice) and the government of la Serenissima allowed the poor people already in 1094 to enjoy a short period of fun and festivities. Over time, the event has appeared and disappeared, and the festival and the use of masks even became strictly forbidden in 1797 under the rule of the King of Austria. It appeared again gradually in the nineteenth century, but only for short periods and mainly for private parties. It was only since 1979 that the event became organized in the current way. At that time, the government and some Venetian associations (such as Teatro La Fenice, the Biennale and other tourist organizations) decided to revive the history and culture of Venice. The festivities of the Venice Carnival could be considered as a series of historical re-enactments and celebrations. This makes it totally different from other well-known carnivals such as the ones in Brazil.
The Festa Veneziana sull’Acqua
The opening activities in the first weekend of the Carnival take place in the Cannaregio sestiere. The official start is usually on Saturday. The performance with acrobats and music on the Rio di Cannaregio is always very impressive. Sunday starts with the regata of La Festa Veneziana sull’Acqua. The parade starts near the Rialto bridge around 11 AM and will arrive at the Cannaregio district around 12 o’clock. You can join the entertainment (which starts at 11 AM) and try some typical Venetian food, such as ‘sarde in soar’ (fried sardines in a sweet-and-sour onion gravy), ‘bigoli in salsa’ (pasta served with an anchovy and onion sauce) and ‘fritole’. It is certainly worthwhile to attend these events if you’re in Venice or even to go a few days earlier than planned.
Piazza San Marco
The San Marco square is the central location for all the carnival festivities such as the costume parades or the Flight of the Angel. The beautiful scenery is designed and created by La Fenice. In previous editions, local artisans created their art in ‘la bottega’, a workshop on the square. You can watch how masks, shoes or tissues are made in a traditional way. Every evening, from 5 PM until 9 PM, you could enjoy live music and a DJ set.
Festa delle Marie
The parade of the Marie refers to the Purification of Mary, which was the day when all marriages were blessed. At the same time, the Venetian Doge offered magnificent jewels as a bridal dowry to 12 poor Venetian girls. However, in 973, pirates kidnapped the 12 Marie and their jewellery during the ceremony. The parade is a commemoration to thank the Virgin Mary for her help in rescuing these girls.
The parade starts at 2.45 PM from San Pietro in Castello and follows Via Garibaldi and Riva degli Schiavoni to reach San Marco at 4.00 PM. When the parade enters the stage, the different ‘actors’ (such as the Doge but also visiting carnival groups from neighbouring cities) are announced by a speaker.
There is no need to be close to the stage to enjoy this event. You could wait for the parade in front of the basilica, so you can take pictures of the Marie with the basilica in the background. Alternatively, you could watch the parade on the riva in Castello where it will be less crowded.
The award ceremony for the winner of the Festa delle Marie will take place on the last day of Carnevale on the San Marco stage, where the 12 girls will arrive by boat, leaving from Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio.
Best Masked Costume Competition
As soon as you get to the San Marco sestiere, you will be overwhelmed by thousands of marvelous masks and costumes. It is impossible not to stand still every now and then and admire the fine details. Every day, there is the possibility to take part in the best masked costume competition, which is open for everyone. All participants parade on the San Marco stage. On the last day of Carnival, the winner is announced. Even though most of the participants are very willing to have their pictures taken when they stroll around the square or on the Riva degli Schiavoni, it is almost impossible to take a picture of a costume without someone photobombing it!
Carnevale dei Ragazzi
Celebrating carnival is not only for adults, but starts at a very young age in Venice. You will see some theatres for children across the city, but you can also attend the activities at Ca’Giustinian, the headquarters of La Biennale. Children (often school groups) get creative and learn to make their own masks and costumes. Even if you don’t take your children, it’s very entertaining to spend some time there. It allows you to get away from the crowds, while you are still enjoying Carnival with the locals. Weekdays are reserved for schools, but families can attend the activities in the weekend.
The flight of the Angel is often considered as the official opening of Carnevale and is broadcast on television. It goes back to the mid-sixteenth century, when a young Turkish acrobat spectacularly succeeded in walking up to the Campanile via a long rope attached to his boat at the riva. On his descent, he stopped at the balcony of the Palazzo Ducale to honour the Doge. The event was repeated in different variations in the following years and called the Flight of the Turk, until it finally ended in tragedy in 1759 when one of the acrobats fell to the ground and died. The event was forbidden, but restarted later with the descent of a wooden dove scattering flowers over the crowds. The name changed to Flight of the Dove.
Then again, in 2001, the event changed to the Flight of the Angel, with a girl (an actress or model) performing the historical act of the Turk and flying from the Campanile to the stage where she is greeted by the Doge. Since 2011, the Angel is the winner of the Festa delle Marie from the previous year. This year, the honour goes to Erika Chia. Her dress will be designed by Atelier Stefano Nicolao.
This is a very popular event and one of the times you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you will have to be there a (few) hours in advance in order to get a good view (you have to be able to see the side of the Campanile and the stage). It is a bit boring as there isn’t much to do when you can’t move, but it’s certainly worth it. The good thing is that you will have enough time to set your camera and test it before she jumps at 12 o’clock.
Ballata delle Maschere con Il Taglio della Testa al Toro
The ballad of the masks with the beheading of the bull is a more recent event, which takes place for the third time. It is organized by the association ‘L’Arte dei Mascareri’. It refers to the legend of mardi gras. This celebrates the victory against the Patriarch Ulrico of Aquileia and his twelve rebel lords in 1162. To remember the attempting rebellion, every year the successors of Ulrico must send a bull, twelve breads and twelve pigs to the Doge of Venice. The bull is a symbol for the Patriarch and the pigs for the lords. They were shown to the people on the San Marco square, mocked and then the bull was beheaded. The parade starts at 3 PM at San Giacometto (Rialto) and ends at the San Marco square, where the bull (not a real one, in case you wonder) will be beheaded.
Nicolotti e Castellani
One of the newer events is the historical re-enactment of the fights between the Nicolotti (who lived in Dorsoduro) and the Castellani (from Castello). During the era of La Serenissima, these fights between neighbourhoods usually took place on a bridge. It will now take place on the San Marco square.
Similar to the Flight of the Angel, the Eagle also flies from the Campanile to the San Marco stage. For the 2018 edition, a major surprise event was planned by Renzo Rosso. This Carnevale activity is very recent and only started in 2012. In the past, the eagles have mainly been women. The flight is planned at 12 o’clock.
Volo del Leone
The final official activity of the Carnival is the flight of the Lion of San Marco, painted on a large canvas. The 12 Marie and the Doge will lift the flag, which is pulled up from the square to the top of the bell tower. It starts at 5 PM, after the award ceremony for the winner of the Festa delle Marie.
There are many masked balls and parties all over Venice, but they are rather expensive to attend. They often include dinner, a show and music. One of these is the official dinner show and ball organized by the Carnevale di Venezia, which is held in the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi along Canal Grande. A beautiful light show will be projected on the facade. If you don’t attend the party inside, you can still admire this part of the event. The show will be performed by the international cast of dancers, musicians, performers and actors of Nu’Art Events in costumes designed by Atelier Pietro Longhi. According to the program, you can expect a madness mood atmosphere. If you have taken part, please share your experience.