Carnival is a time of raucous indulgence! Dress up, dance in the streets, play tricks on strangers and no-one minds, in fact, the more the merrier!
Carnival is a period rather than a day. Festivities begin before Quaresima - 40 days of Lent. In some regions of Italy, festivities last from Boxing Day to Ash Wednesday culminating in a burst of confetti and street parades on martedi grasso - 'Shrove Tuesday' or 'Pancake Day'.
In truth, Carnival begins much earlier in the year as thoughts and ideas in the minds of communities. Every locality has their traditions and when a local parade is involved, much planning and discussion is needed over many merry meals. As one Carnival ends, another immediately begins, it's major.
A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale - during Carnival all tricks are permitted!
Traditionally, Lent refers to the period Jesus spent fasting in the desert. According to Christian history, this signifies 40 days of abstaining from meat which interestingly gives Carnevale its name “carnem levare” which in Latin literally translates as "remove meat". Of course, it was meat, sweets and other sumptuous pleasures resulting in Shrove Tuesday becoming a decadent banquet of all prohibitions on one day. Enter the Venetians who took things to the next level throwing role-reversal parties and crazed masked balls where slaves became masters, gambling was permitted and sumptuary laws lifted. Mask-wearing permitted Venetians to party in disguise, amongst other things.
The Carnival of Venice is one of Italy's most iconic and truly a period of immense pleasure if you get to visit and find a hotel room. Expect a packed Piazza San Marco and streets full of slow-moving party-goers, costumes, masks and merry chaos. The piazza is the heart of Carnival since 1162 when the people of Venice gathered here to celebrate their glorious defeat over the Patriarch of Aquileia, starting a trend that lasted for years until it was halted under the rule of Emperor Francis II in 1797. He also banned masks.
Venice's Carnival had always been a gloriously decadent affair, it was a period of liberty and excess which Venetians extended from December to October. In 16 -18th centuries, for 6 months a year, social differences and responsibilities were lifted, masks and costumes were permitted and festive mayhem reigned. The indulgent city grew in fame and power during Baroque times but to cover one's face was always a delicate matter leading to an uncontrollable increase in crime. The Serenissima Republic imposed law after law; prohibiting masks after dark, forbidding Venetians from wearing vulgar disguises or covering their faces in casinos and finally banning all masks outside of carnival. But rather than give up their exuberant lifestyle, Venetians turned to private rendezvous instead. Much went on behind closed doors and soon the mask had become symbolic of an artistic rebellion against a strict establishment with stanch rulings. In the nineteenth century, Carnival disappeared completely from public, celebrated solely at home, but in 1979 the Italian government strategically decided to officially bring it back, hoping Venice's fame and stature would be boosted once again. Success! The city rediscovered her love of mask-making which is now a roaring trade celebrated at carnival especially without the imposition of Serenissima rules. He heady libertine days are long gone.
Every region in Italy celebrates Carnival in a unique way with street parades and regional foods. Tuscany's Carnival of Viareggio is world-famous for enormous floats and parades lasting days throughout the city while Milan's Carnival extends past the other Carnivals to the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. Families will dress up and gather along the road-sides to clap, sing and dance, throwing confetti at the local paraders who throw it back ten-fold. With schools encouraging children to fancy dress for lessons, it's the most fun time of the year where absolutely anything goes.
Carnival in Venice these days
3 million visitors a year flock to the little city every February for Carnival, with music in the piazze and partying around every corner, don a costume, grab your confetti and don't forget your Venetian mask! Piazza San Marco is the epicentre of the jolly capital, but it is hard to jostle around its raised stage showcasing La Maschera Più Bella - 'The Most Beautiful Mask' Contest.
To experience true Venice, lose yourselves in the narrow calle and tiny districts that make up this unique city, particularly during Carnival when her true colours come out. Elaborate masked posers will stand in prominent positions on Piazza San Marco for a sightseeing pic but many also walk the calle. Perhaps spend some time in the throng on the piazza, but then drift into the slow-moving crowd through the lanes. Stop off for an Aperol Spritz and occasional tramezzino, grab a whole bottle of Prosecco like a local and literally go with the vibrant flow.
La Festa delle Marie
Carnival officially opens with "La Festa delle Marie" 10 days before Shrove Tuesday. 12 costumed maidens are presented on centre stage in a beauty contest with the winner crowned the “Maria del Carnevale”. She earns the privilege of becoming next year's angel to fly from the bell tower. Traditionally, the 12 maidens were beautiful young brides presented to Venice's Doge who'd gift them a wedding dowry. Nowadays, they're the most exquisite photo opportunity.
Il Volo dell'Angelo
On Sunday, after the last ring of San Marco's twelve o'clock bell, a Carnival Angel flies down towards the Piazza Stage and an awaiting Doge. She descends from the famous bell tower in the carnation of last year's Maria of the Carnival, flying above a sea of 100 000 up-cast faces to an epic hush on one of the world's busiest squares. It's an awe-inspiring sight preceded by parades, shows, jugglers and performances.
In the same vein, Lo Svolo dell’Aquilam - The Eagle's Flight takes place around the same time, but instead of a beautiful maiden, the eagle takes the form of a famous Italian celebrity.
La Maschera più Bella - The best masked costume
Every morning and afternoon main stage hosts an array of mask wearers who compete through poetry and performance for the audience's vote on the best mask. On the last Sunday of Carnival, the grand finale takes place with the highest honour bestowed upon the best mask and its wearer.
Carnival costumes and masks are endless and truly anything goes but a few characters regularly stand out as traditional favourites:
Medico Della Peste - The Plague Doctor
This Venetian mask we all know - originating from the 17th century physician Charles de Lorne who wore it while treating his Plague-infected patients in the hope the long, beaked nose would keep the disease at bay. The mask is worn white with two sinister eye-holes, a black hat, cape and white gloves with a staff.
Arlecchino - Harlequin
This is a stage character with a traditionally leather mask and a comical, expression-full face. Arlecchino's costume is a chequered, colourful suit with a white frill and a hat. He's staged as servant to Pantelone - a long-nosed, aged man in a cloak.
Colombina - Columbine
Allegedly designed for an actress who wanted her beautiful face left uncovered, the classic Colombine mask is half--faced with elaborate feathers, jewels and crystals, probably the most recognised and symbolic of Venice, named after a lovely maid from la Commedia dell'arte.
To add to the exuberance of carnival, we just have to indulge in mouth-watering specialities that appear after Christmas as a run up to the festivities. There are two sweet treats that stand out:
Frittelle - throughout Italy, these deep fried, sugary puffs are made in January and February with few regional variations. Frittelle are cooked with basic ingredients (flour, eggs and sugar) and to Italians signify the official beginning of Carnival. They're sold in Venice as frittole - a long-standing trade passed down through families of fritoleri who'd sell their wares from road-side wooden sheds, fried right there in enormous pans of oil to be rolled in sugar and eaten. Frittelle can be found filled with chocolate, zabaione, fruits and many flavours of crema.
Crostoli - These are also deep fried, but instead of soft, doughy balls, crostoli are crispy and flat. Made in different shapes and called different names throughout Italy - Frappe, Chiacchiere, Bugie, Cenci, Sfrappole, in Naples they're dipped in a rich chocolate cream called sanguinaccio, as it contains pig's blood.
When to visit
To experience Carnival, time a trip to Italy so that Shrove Tuesday falls during your stay. Most large towns will celebrate on Tuesday with a huge parade of entertaining floats down the high street, music, dancing and costumes galore! Smaller towns will host an identical parade on the Sunday before so be sure to check online first.