The event later morphed into the city’s Lenten kickoff festival, and by the late 18th century, Carnem Vale, Latin for “Goodbye, flesh,” had evolved into a no-holds-barred bacchanalian binge that started the day after Christmas and ended in the wee hours of Ash Wednesday. Of course, contemporary festivities have been shortened — Carnevale in Venice takes place in the days leading up to Lent and lasts for two weeks, ending on Shrove Tuesday, the day before 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. 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.
What to 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.