The Carnival of Venice is unique, one of the most beautiful and best known in the world, and in the past, during the era of the Serenissima, it was an extremely important event for the Venetians.
From the second half of the seventeenth century, the carnival started on the first Sunday in October, the month that coincided with the opening of the theatres, there was a brief interruption during the Christmas period and then it resumed in full swing on St Stephen’s Day to end on Shrove Tuesday. So six months of festivities! Many of the festivities were attended by the Doge and this made the Venetian carnival solemn, sumptuous and well-known, which is why Venice in the 1700s was also called ‘The City of Masks’. Characters of all kinds, adventurers, royalty, writers and musicians, hidden by masks and made to look like ordinary citizens, were free to move, speak and act without ruining their reputation; the prolonged use of masks was therefore a strong attraction for Venetians and foreigners alike. In the so-called ridotti or casini, places initially conceived as conversation halls or places for social games, it was even compulsory to enter masked. After years of exceptional celebrations and extravagance, the carnival declined with the fall of the Serenissima, as the government did not take a favourable view of extravagance during the Austro-French rule. Street parties and shows were abolished and only private parties in palaces were allowed. The last historical carnival took place in 1797, after which Napoleon banned it for fear of conspiracies.
Even today, the carnival is a much-awaited festival for Venetians and tourists alike, who come from all over the world to immerse themselves in a fascinating world. It lasts about 20 days, during which there are some official performances that take up the traditional ones of the historical carnival, such as the “Flight of the Angel or the Columbine” and “The Feast of the Maries”, and others introduced more recently such as the so-called “Parade of the Pantegana”: it is a spectacular water parade that crosses the Grand Canal and reaches the Rio di Cannaregio where a papier-mâché pantegana is launched and explodes in the air with a riot of confetti and festoons.
During the carnival everyone can walk through the calli and campielli wearing a mask in a festive and cheerful atmosphere. There is music, street performances and elegant themed masked balls in the luxurious Venetian palaces. You can buy masks and/or rent traditional costumes in typical handicraft shops and ateliers. It is certainly a festive event, but also one of tradition and culture, which is constantly evolving. “…one evening, on my way home in a deserted field in Venice, I met three ladies dressed in 18th-century costumes. I turned around and saw their silhouettes moving away in the classic night fog, and for a moment I found myself back in the 18th century. Dream or reality? This is Venice.”