Venice Carnival takes place in February, in the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. It used to last ten days but now in order to extend this high-earning tourist season, events often start the weekend before that. Consequently the main events of the 2016 Carnival take place 23rd January – 9th February, with the first celebrations starting on the weekend of the 23rd/4th January.
Carnival, or Carnevale, has been celebrated for centuries throughout Italy. The name is said to derive from the wordscarne vale – ‘farewell to meat’ – which explain the function of the celebration: an opportunity to indulge and use up such treats before the start of Lent (like an extended Pancake Day).
In modern Italy Carnevale is generally a time for children, who are led, carried and wheeled around town dressed in costumes – from cute fluffy animal suits to musketeers and Harry Potters, leaving a trail of confetti, sweets and ‘silly string’ littering streets and piazzas. Sometimes the celebrations extend to organised events for the whole community, but on the whole it’s not a very important time for adults.
In Venice, however, the tourist board and hoteliers hit upon a fantastic money-earner in the 1980s when they revived a picturesque version of Venice’s past. In Venice it’s the grown-ups who have most of the fun, with masked balls, costume parades and a slightly antiseptic nostalgia for more decadent times.
Carnival in Venice
However much the modern Carnival may be contrived for tourists, it’s undeniably atmospheric to walk down a lane in Venice and pass cloaked and masked figures. The tourist board and hotels urge their guests to participate by wearing at least a mask as they tour the town. It can be an exciting time for children, as long as the dehumanising masks don’t scare them, and there are plenty of opportunities for fun. Young and old can admire the spectacle and select their favourite costumed characters, and there are plenty of opportunities to photograph your loved ones alongside dramatically-costumed carnival-goers. The city is very busy, particularly during the two Carnival weekends, and there is a genuinely festive atmosphere.
The Carnival is a very big business opportunity for Venice, and a consortium has been set up to maximise the potential for tourist revenue. There are lots of events scheduled all around Venice, with a programme available online and from the tourist information offices.
Free entertainment and public shows
Throughout the Carnival period there is plenty of entertainment to be had around St. Mark’s Square and the adjacent Piazzetta. A programme of events takes place in the Piazza, open to everyone. A schedule is displayed on notices around the square (or pick up a calendar at the tourist office). Apart from the organised events, there is a lot of fun to be had costume-spotting. Costumed characters parade and preen throughout the day, happily posing for armies of photographers. Some are in greater demand than others; after half-an-hour’s wandering you’ll probably have your own favourites.
To add to the festival atmosphere, there are usually refreshment stalls in the Piazza selling snacks and drinks like mulled wine, local Bellini cocktails and the local specialityfritelle.
The grand opening celebration of the Carnival takes place on the first Sunday, with an event called il volo dell’angelo (the flight of the angel). This adaptation of an old tradition involves an ‘angel’ (often notable for the randomness of choice: in 2007 this was a female swimming champion; in 2008 the rapper Coolio; in 2009 fashion dynasty member Margherita Missoni, in subsequent years either socialites or Venetian carnival participants swinging on harnesses from the belltower into the Piazzetta San Marco. One of the big events is the afternoon parade of costumes on a catwalk in St. Mark’s Square. If your costume is fabulous and you’re feeling confident, then you can join in. I’ve seen participants from England, San Francisco, Brazil, France, Germany and all parts of Italy. The festival ends with a big celebration and fireworks above St. Mark’s.