Every year, the islands of Venice come together for Carnevale, the city’s biggest celebration and an epic 16-day costume party spilling into every calle and campo. Carnevale is a storied tradition in Venice, dating back nearly 1,000 years to 1064 as a simple festivity which eventually morphed into the city’s Lenten kickoff festival. By the late 18th century, Carnem Vale, Latin for “Goodbye, flesh,” evolved into a no-holds-barred bacchanalian binge that started the day after Christmas and ended in the wee hours of Ash Wednesday.
Today’s Carnevale is not quite the den of debauchery that caused Napoleon to shut down the celebrations during his occupation of La Serenissima — a ban that lasted nearly 200 years. But still, contemporary Carnevale is a huge celebration — two full weeks of playing dress-up with a naughty sense of humor, whooping it up at masquerade balls, and watching parades, acrobatic displays and other surprises. Here’s where to find the fun.
Festa Veneziana Sull’Acqua
Like Rio’s Carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Carnevale is an event driven, carnival season celebration, but replacing beads and samba dancing with masks and balls. Instead of a parade of floats, Carnevale kicks off with a floating parade, Festa Veneziana Sull’Acqua, a colorful, daylong regatta that courses its way through the city’s lively Canareggio district. Plant yourself firmly in Canareggio and watch the show, trying to pick out your favorite masked reveler.
It wouldn’t be Carnevale without masquerade balls, decadent evenings of lavish anonymity. The pay-for-play parties are once-in-a-lifetime experiences with dinner, performances and dancing at some of the city’s most beautiful palaces. The coveted Ballo del Doge is the hottest ticket in the city with a starting price of 800 euro, while tickets to balls like the Lunatic Dinner Ball, Gran Ballo Mascherada, Casanova Cocktail Party and Minuetto come at slightly lower price tags.
Corteo della Festa delle Marie
Part of Carnevale lore and tradition is the Festa delle Marie (Marias of the Festival), a reenactment of the 10th-century kidnapping and subsequent rescue of 12 brides from the church of San Pietro. Today, the event features 12 young women dressed in period garb parading down Via Garibaldi to Piazza San Marco. Here, one of them is ultimately named “Maria of the Festival,” a designation that comes with its own special bonus.
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.
On the last Sunday of Carnevale, Piazza San Marco again fills with crowds for Volo dell’Aquila, a whimsical flight across St. Mark’s Square by an acrobat, 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.
The Essential Carnevale Tips
When is the Carnevale and When should I book?
Carnevale is the sixteen day period leading up to Ash Wednesday. The 2020 Carnevale kicks of Saturday, February 8th, and ends Tuesday (Martedi Grasso aka Fat Tuesday) February 25th. You’ll definitely want to book well in advance as this is Venice’s busiest period for hotels and everything else. As soon as you book your hotel, book a few key restaurants - you can find some of my favorites in my Biennale article.
Can I participate?
Of course! Carnevale is for everyone. There are free citywide events as well as pay-to-play parties, all you have to do is decide what you want to do. You can find the calendar of events at Carnevale di Venezia. As I wrote above, most balls are open to the public and only require advance ticket purchase, which I would suggest you do as soon as you know when you are going to Venice. They can be expensive and often include dinner, a show and music. If you feel like it’s too pricey, there open festival includes free events. Balls are listed on Carnevale di Venezia and Meeting Europe (with more to come)
Do I need to stay the entire 16 days? Do I really need to go to a ball?
16 days 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.
What do I Wear?
Masks, masks and more masks. Hiding your identity is what Carnevale is all about. Masks come in all shapes and sizes and can be equally as elaborate as the luxurious costumes.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. You’ll want to choose your costume before you come to Venice. You can go traditional or completely creative, over-the-top and risqué. At Carnevale, Anything goes.