The origins of the Venice Carnival date back a very long time, but it is not one hundred percent clear when this would have been. Most sources mention 1162 when Venice celebrated the victory against the Patriarch of Aquileia, while other sources claim that the Doge Vitale Falier (the chief magistrate in the former republic of Venice) and the government of la Serenissima allowed the poor people already in 1094 to enjoy a short period of fun and festivities. Over time, the event has appeared and disappeared, and the festival and the use of masks even became strictly forbidden in 1797 under the rule of the King of Austria. It reappeared gradually in the nineteenth century, but only for short periods and mainly for private parties. It was only since 1979 that the event became organized in the current way. At that time, the government and some Venetian associations (such as Teatro La Fenice, the Venice Biennale and other tourist organizations) decided to revive the history and culture of Venice.
The festivities of the Venice Carnival could be considered as a series of historical re-enactments and celebrations. This makes it totally different from other well-known carnivals such as the ones in Brazil and in Germany.
The Festa Veneziana
January 27 – 28, 2018
The opening activities in the first weekend of the Carnival are mainly attended by locals and take place in the Cannaregio sestiere. The official start is on Saturday at 6 PM with a big show at the Rio di Cannaregio. It is repeated a second time at 8 PM.
On Sunday, the main event is a historical water parade of decorated boats (corteo storico di imbarcazioni addobbate) at 12 o’clock. The parade starts near the Rialto bridge around 11 AM. If you want to have a good view, you should go to the Pescheria (fish market) area, near Naranzaria. Afterwards, you should move across the city to the Cannaregio district to be in time for the parade at 12 o’clock. Once you’re there, you can join the entertainment (which starts at 11 AM) and try some typical Venetian food, such as ‘sarde in soar’ (fried sardines in a sweet-and-sour onion gravy), ‘bigoli in salsa’ (pasta served with an anchovy and onion sauce) and ‘fritole’. It is certainly worthwhile to attend these events if you’re in Venice or even to go a few days earlier than planned.
Festa delle Marie
February 3, 2018
The parade of the Marie refers to the Purification of Mary, which was the day when all marriages were blessed. At the same time, the Venetian Doge offered magnificent jewels as a bridal dowry to 12 poor Venetian girls. However, in 973, pirates kidnapped the 12 Marie and their jewellery during the ceremony. The parade is a commemoration to thank the Virgin Mary for her help in rescuing these girls.
DID YOU KNOW? The word “marionette” is derived from this Venetian tradition. At one point in time, the city decided to cut costs and use wooden dolls to represent the Marie in the parade, so they could save on the dowries. These dolls were called Marie di legno or Marione. They were later reproduced in smaller sizes and named marionettes.
The parade starts at 2.30 PM from San Pietro in Castello and follows Via Garibaldi and Riva degli Schiavoni to reach San Marco at 4.00 PM. When the parade enters the stage, the different ‘actors’ (such as the Doge but also visiting carnival groups from neighbouring cities) are announced by a speaker.
TIP: There is no need to be close to the stage to enjoy this event. You could wait for the parade in front of the basilica, so you can take pictures of the Marie with the basilica in the background. Alternatively, you could watch the parade on the riva in Castello where it will be less crowded.
The award ceremony for the winner of the Festa delle Marie will take place during the last weekend of Carnevale at 4.30 PM on the San Marco stage, where the 12 girls will arrive by boat, leaving from Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio.
Best Masked Costume Competition
February 3 – 11, 2018
As soon as you get to the San Marco sestiere, you will be overwhelmed by thousands of beautiful masks and costumes (more info in my post ‘Glamourous masks and costumes at Carnevale di Venezia’). It is impossible not to stand still every now and then and admire the fine details. I can’t even imagine how much time it must take to create some of these costumes. Every day, there is the possibility to take part in the best masked costume competition, which is open for everyone. All participants parade on the San Marco stage. On the last day of Carnival, the winner is announced. Even though most of the participants are very willing to have their pictures taken when they stroll around the square or on the Riva degli Schiavoni, it is almost impossible to take a picture of a costume without someone photobombing it!
TIP: Go to Campo San Zaccaria to take your best pictures. The pink stones of the church add a special Venetian touch to the costumes. There are always people hanging around there to be photographed and there is enough space to freely move around. A second option is on the Fond. de l’Osmarin, where they pose on the small bridge. A last alternative for typical Venetian pictures is to (try to) get a seat at Caffé Florian. Participants often go there as well, so you will be able to photograph in a very typical setting.
Nights in Arsenale
(The animation program for 2018 has not yet been revealed, so this is an example from last year.)
After you spent your day in the San Marco sestiere, you should go to the Arsenale where a large spectacle will be performed in the evening along the Fondamenta della Darsena Grande. The set has been built by La Fenice (as is the one on San Marco) and the show is performed by Nu’Art (the same company as for the Festa Veneziana on the opening weekend). It includes animations, exhibitions, sparkling music, fabulous performances and sensational fireworks shows on water.
February 4, 2018
The flight of the Angel is often considered as the official opening of Carnevale and is broadcast on television. It goes back to the mid-sixteenth century, when a young Turkish acrobat spectacularly succeeded in walking up to the Campanile via a long rope attached to his boat at the riva. On his descent, he stopped at the balcony of the Palazzo Ducale to honour the Doge. The event was repeated in different variations in the following years and called the Flight of the Turk, until it finally ended in tragedy in 1759 when one of the acrobats fell to the ground and died. The event was forbidden, but restarted later with the descent of a wooden dove scattering flowers over the crowds. The name changed to Flight of the Dove. Then again, in 2001, the event changed to the Flight of the Angel, with a girl (an actress or model) performing the historical act of the Turk and flying from the Campanile to the stage where she is greeted by the Doge. Since 2011, the Angel is the winner of the Festa delle Marie from the previous year.
TIP: This is a very popular event and one of the times you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you will have to be there a (few) hours in advance in order to get a good view (you have to be able to see the side of the Campanile and the stage). It is a bit boring as there isn’t much to do when you can’t move, but it’s certainly worth it. The good thing is that you will have enough time to set your camera and test it before she jumps at 12 o’clock.
(The theatre program for 2018 has not yet been revealed. There is always some kind of theatre on San Marco but it’s unclear yet if the Goldoni theatre will participate this year.)
If you like to watch typical Venetian theatre, there are two options during carnival. On the San Marco square, there is a daily show at 12 o’clock called “L’Arlecchino Furioso”. Usually, these short plays on the square are alway very funny to watch, even if you don’t understand Italian. So, in between watching the beautiful costumes and masks, you can enjoy this masked theatre.
Alternatively, you could book a ticket for the Goldoni play “I rusteghi”, directed by Giuseppe Emiliani. It is one of the most beloved parts by Carlo Goldoni, in which Lunardo, Maurizio, Simon and Canciano try to get their sons and daughters married. Carlo Goldoni is an Italian playwright, born in Venice in 1707, and the founder of Italian realistic comedy. He replaced the masked figures from the commedia dell’arte with more realistic characters and he insisted on more structure in the plays with for instance clearly defined roles and written texts.
Ballata delle Maschere con Il Taglio della Testa al Toro
February 8, 2018
The ballad of the masks with the beheading of the bull is a more recent event, which takes place for the third time. It is organized by the association ‘L’Arte dei Mascareri’. It refers to the legend of ‘giovedì grasso’ (mardi gras). This celebrates the victory against the Patriarch Ulrico of Aquileia and his twelve rebel lords in 1162. To remember the attempting rebellion, every year the successors of Ulrico must send a bull, twelve breads and twelve pigs to the Doge of Venice. The bull is a symbol for the Patriarch and the pigs for the lords. They were shown to the people on the San Marco square, mocked and then the bull was beheaded. The parade starts at 2.30 PM at San Giacometto (Rialto) and ends at the San Marco square, where the bull (not a real one, in case you wonder) will be beheaded.
February 11, 2018
Similar to the Flight of the Angel, the Eagle also flies from the Campanile to the San Marco stage. This event is very recent and only started in 2012. In the past, the eagles have been female athletes. This changed from 2016 when they chose Saturnino, a famous electric bass player. In 2017, the honour went to Melissa Satta, an Italian television star. It is planned at 12 o’clock.
Svolo del Leone
February 13, 2018
The final official activity of the Carnival is the flight of the Lion of San Marco, painted on a large canvas. The 12 Marie and the Doge will salute the flag, which is pulled up from the square to the top of the bell tower. It starts at 5 PM, after the award ceremony for the winner of the Festa delle Marie.
Vogata del Silenzio
(This event was cancelled in 2016 and 2017, but the decision was taken rather late. Hopefully, we will be able to enjoy this parade again in the next edition of carnival.)
The symbolic closure of the Venice Carnaval used to be a spectular water parade of gondolas and traditional boats. Motor boats are not allowed, hence the name Parade of Silence. The magic begins when all the lights along Canal Grande are turned off and the boats slide from Rialto to the Bacino di San Marco, only lit by their own candlelights and those on the balconies of the palazzos. Unfortunately, this year, the event will not take place.
Carnevale dei Ragazzi (Children’s Carnival)
Celebrating carnival is not only for adults, but starts at a very young age in Venice. You will see some theatres for children across the city, but the best example is in Giardini. In the central pavilion of the Biennale, children (often school groups) get creative and learn to make their own masks and costumes. Even if you don’t take your children, it’s very entertaining to spend some time there. It allows you to get away from the crowds, while you are still enjoying Carnival with the locals.
There are many masked balls and parties all over Venice, but they are rather expensive to attend. They often include dinner, a show and music. One of these is the official dinner show and ball organized by the official Carnevale di Venezia, and which is held in the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi. I haven’t attended any of these, so I can’t give you any insights. If you have taken part, please share your experience.
Can’t get enough of Carnevale di Venezia?
If you are interested in seeing more pictures from Carnival, have a look at my video on YouTube. It will certainly make you wonder if you still have time to book a flight to experience it first-hand. Alternatively, you can buy the book Venezia in maschera, with great pictures of masks and costumes or read Carnival for the death, a novel which is set during Carnival.
During the Carnival festivities, I will regulary post information on smaller events related to Carnival on my Facebook and Google+ page. Make sure to follow these if you would like to be up-to-date with what is going on in Venice. You can also follow the Social Wall of the Carnevale di Venezia itself, where they publish an overview of their Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Google+ accounts with the latest images and news.
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