If Venice is your short break destination of choice over the coming days, you’re in for an absolute treat as the city is currently knee-deep in carnival fever. But unlike the samba dancers of the legendary Rio Carnival or the riotously colourful and over-sized papier-mâché heads that parade through the streets of Nice, the Carnevale di Venezia is an altogether more sophisticated and decadent affair.
Think of the Venice Carnival and the mind immediately conjures up images of Casanova, of elaborate masks, masked balls and distinctive, dramatic costumes. Centuries old, the earliest documents pertaining to carnivals and the adorning of masks in Venice date back to the 13th century although some claim its roots lie in the year 1162 when local people crowded into St Mark’s Square to celebrate the victory of the Serennissima Repubblica against the Patriarch of Aquileia.
Long associated with risk taking and hedonism, the wearing of masks has for centuries played a prominent role in Venetian history. Synonymous with libertines, transgressors and thrill seekers, the adorning of a mask allowed the wearer to take forbidden liberties, be it gambling, secret amorous trysts, shady business deals or even the illicit entering of convents. Such was the prevalence of illegal covert behaviour, in 1608 the city decreed that all citizens were forbidden to wear masks except during Carnival and official banquets.
Gaining official status as a city event during the Renaissance, the Carnival became increasingly popular during the 18th century, with jubilant revelry, music and dancing day and night in the alleyways and on the waterways of Venice, yet was outlawed by the King of Austria in 1797, and again in the 1930s by Mussolini, with the wearing of masks strictly forbidden. Finally making its long-awaited return to the city’s annual calendar in 1979, the Carnival symbolises the jewel in the crown of Venice’s extensive history and culture and today it is estimated that some three million visitors flock to the city every year during Carnival season.
This year’s event – themed wonder and fantasy nature – kicked off this weekend in grand style, with the ‘Flight of the Angel’ zip wire slide from the top of St Mark’s Basilica, a homage back to the 16th century when a Turkish sailor climbed a tightrope from his ship to the top of this famous landmark. Running until Shrove Tuesday (4th March), the schedule is packed full with opulent masked balls and costumed events (expect high prices), and yet there is a number of other, less exorbitantly-priced activities on offer from the pre-requisite gondola ride and visit to the Doges’ Palace, to murder mystery tours, classical concerts, wine-tasting, pub crawls and party cruises. And even if you don’t attend an event, just wandering through the narrow alleyways and over the beautiful bridges during carnival season provides atmosphere in abundance.
In short, carnival season in Venice may not be the most attractively-priced time of year to visit, but we guarantee you’ll have a ball!