The Carnival of Venice was once an extravagant centrepiece for the rich and festive. Since its revival in 1979, its role is has been truly restored.
If you had a fortnight left to live and wanted to spend your last pennies on a feast of joy and indulgence, you could do worse than attending the Carnival of Venice. For 11 days, people enjoy the finest of food, wine and entertainment; some with a guiltless smirk concealed only by the symbolic Venetian masks and costumes. Elegant balls, gala dinners and private parties are enjoyed in hotels and private suites to the backdrop of the San Marco Square – with artists and musicians providing entertainment well into the morning hours. ‘Luxury’ per se doesn’t quite do it justice. Rather, it is a feast in which nothing is left to spare, as if the last days were upon us.
There is timing behind this lavishness. The festival starts on the Saturday two weeks before Ash Wednesday, when Lent commences (dates for 2013 are 2-12 February). As such, it is a final no-holds-barred party of everything that can gratify the senses.
Its origins are traced back to 1162 when a group of Venetians took to the San Marco Square to slaughter a bull and 12 pigs to celebrate the Republic’s defeat of Ulrico, the Patriarch of Aquielia. At its heyday in the 17th and 18th century it attracted politicians, princes and rich heirs from across Europe. However, Napoleon shut it down in 1797 after conquering the city, before Benito Mussolini banned the festival in the 1930s. Yet in 1979 Venetians revived it, and it has later rebuilt the status it earlier enjoyed.
Central to the carnival’s carefree theme is the Venetian masks. The festival first adopted these in 1268 to overturn the hierarchy of social classes; whether rich or poor, male or female, the concealment of identity meant no judgement was passed (even today, people are greeted as Sior Maschera – ‘signor mask’, to avoid distinctions of class and sex). Later however, Venetians started to wear masks outside the festival to hide their irresponsible actions, leading the city into moral decay. People gambled from morning to night, while men snuck into conventions and churches. Even nuns and clerks engaged in the very activities they publicly condemned.
A series of crackdowns followed. The Doges – Venice’s chief magistrates – passed laws in 1608 that masks should only be worn at carnival and official banquets. Those disobeying faced severe penalties. Men were handed two years of jail, a fine of 500 lire and 18 months’ service to the Republic’s galley rowing, with their ankles tied. Women were whipped from San Marco Square to Rialto, a 600-metre walk, then held to public ridicule. Later, in 1703, masks were banned from all casinos to disclose gamblers hiding from their creditors. At its worst, the morale was perhaps best portrayed by Giacomo Casanova, Venice’s most famous citizen, whose lawless womanising in the 18th century left a trail of controversy.
If such immorality is less common at the carnival these days, the extravaganza of old is very much retained. For 11 days, the San Marco Square is brimming with public balls, classical music, lunches, competitions and those elegant and mysterious masks. Its centrepiece – and very much the heart of the festival – is the Gran Teatri Di Piazza Marco, which each day from 11.00 to 23.00 hosts a continual programme of theatre plays, concerts and shows. There are also two daily competitions to crown the best masked costume; one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
There are one-off events too, of course. The opening day, Saturday the 2nd, features a parade of 12 Venetian girls – the ’12 Marias’ – to greet the Doge. The ‘Flight of the Angel’ follows the day after, where an unknown guest flies from the San Marco Bell Tower and down on the San Marco Square, attached to a rope, to pay homage to the Doge. On Friday the 9th, the official Tiepolo Ball kicks off at Palazzo Pisano Moretta just across the Grand Canal. The following Saturday, the winner of the 12 Marias is crowned. On the final day, Tuesday the 12th, the ‘Silent Water Parade’ sees a cluster of traditional boats and gondolas drift down the Grand Canal in darkness at 23.00, lit only by candle lights. It is a final farewell and appreciation of the past 11 days, and a reminder to come back next year.
Hotels, tours and tickets: many of the balls and private parties are ticketed events organised by local tour operators. The biggest ones should be bought in advance. These events vary in size and prize, with tickets ranging from €65 to €540. Tickets must also be bought for private lunches, guided tours, photography trips and ballet classes, though these are easier to acquire.
Masks and costumes: if you don’t buy or rent in advance, Venice has several quality retailers. Two popular stores are Tragicomica and Canovaccio. Book your hotel as soon as possible; they fill up fast, and staying outside the city is not ideal. Good choices are the Hotel Ca’Maria Adele, Ca’ Sagredo, Bauer Palladio or, if you want the very best, Hotel Cipriani.
Photos: Fotogragiche, Anibal Trejo, Fottom [all via Shutterstock.com].