The Venice Carnival is one of the world’s most iconic and festive events. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the floating city to participate in the revelry. From masquerade balls and street parties to gondola rides and grand processions, there’s no shortage of fun.
In this complete guide, we’ll give you everything you need to know to make the most out of your Venice Carnival experience. We’ll tell you when to go, what to see, and how to enjoy all the outlandish festivities this event offers. So whether you’re a first-time visitor or a carnival veteran, read on for everything you need to know about the Venice Carnival!
TABLE OF CONTENTS: Want to jump around our guide to carnival in Venice? Click on the links to navigate the guide.
- What is the Venice Carnival?
- Things to Do at Carnival in Venice
- Venice Carnival Masks and Costumes
- Frequently Asked Questions About Venice Carnival
- What Day is the Venice Carnival?
- How Long Does the Carnival in Venice Last?
- Is Carnival in Venice Worth It?
- Why Do They Celebrate the Carnival of Venice?
- What Are the Rules for Wearing Masks at Carnival in Venice?
- What Do You Wear to a Carnival in Venice?
- What Food is Eaten at Venice Carnival?
- Is the Venice Carnival Free?
What is the Venice Carnival?
Although it has since become part of Christian traditions, carnival originated in pagan celebrations. People would gather and give thanks for the end of winter and the return of spring.
Similarly, Ancient Rome was known for celebrating Saturnalia, where people would break from social norms and hierarchical boundaries. This celebration included dancing, feasting, drinking, and rowdy parties.
Later in history, after the rise of Christianity, rather than suppressing these pagan celebrations, the church permitted them to continue but gave them Christian meanings.
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The Italian word “carnevale” actually comes from two Latin words: “carne” and “vale.” Carne means meat, and vale means goodbye or farewell. This signified that it was time to fast and avoid temptation during Lent (a time of sacrifice and reflection for the 40 days before Easter).
The First Carnival in Venice
Although first mentioned in 1094 by Doge Vitale Falier as a way of describing public amusements, the first documented “carnevale” parade took place in 1162 to celebrate victory over Ulrich II of Treven, who was the Patriarch of Aquileia (an ancient Roman city in Italy).
Ulrich unsuccessfully tried to overthrow and capture the Republic of Venice. The Doge acted swiftly by dispatching a fleet to Grado, where Ulrich and 12 of his vassals were surrounded and taken prisoner.
To re-establish peace, the Pope demanded that the men be released on the condition that every year on Holy Thursday, the Patriarch would pay tribute to Venice.
This tribute consisted of a bull, 12 pigs, and 12 loaves of bread. To commemorate the victory, the livestock were slaughtered in Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square) and shared with Venetians.
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During the celebration, Venetians would play games, drink, dance, and eat in excess around bonfires.
Over 100 years later, in 1269, the Senate of Serenissima made Carnevale di Venezia and Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday) an official public holiday. From that moment on, the Venice carnival would last six weeks, from December 26th to Ash Wednesday.
As Venice became a commercial and cultural epicenter during the Middle Ages, carnivals began to attract a lot of visitors from all corners of Europe. Word quickly spread (or as quickly as horse and boat could take you) that Venice had an annual party with food, drinks, and merriment.
Carnival helped propel Venice into one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations of the time.
The Carnival of Venice continued to grow year after year and eventually began to resemble what we’ve come to know today. Each year something new was added, and soon, it involved jugglers, dancers, and musicians entertaining the public.
The Height of Carnevale di Venezia
The Venice Carnival was at its most extravagant in the 18th century. Venice was known as the pleasure playground of Europe, and it was famous for its luxurious lifestyle. It was also a major gambling destination, similar to Las Vegas today.
It was a celebration that knew no bounds. Carnival, now with international recognition, attracted nearly 30,000 visitors from all over Europe. Among the tourists were monarchs and European noblemen.
The festival’s appeal was that it gave people in power a chance to let loose and misbehave without worrying about their reputation. They hid in anonymity behind elaborate masks and let loose at wild parties, orgies, and gambling halls.
Have you ever heard of men being called Casanovas? It’s a direct reference to famous adventurer, artist, and womanizer Giacomo Casanova who lived in Venice during this period.
The celebrations and debauchery continued for hundreds of years until the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1798.
The Fall of the Venetian Carnival
In 1798, Napoleon’s troops invaded and sacked Venice. This caused the city to lose its independence and status as a sovereign state. Venice was absorbed into the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.
During this period, Venice declined in virtually every sense: economic, cultural, and political. Carnival was caught in the crosshairs, and celebrations ceased to exist.
What the French saw during the celebrations shocked them, and Napoleon banned wearing Venetian Carnival costumes. The only time people were exempt from this rule was if they were attending private parties or the Ballo della Cavalchina at Teatro La Fenice.
For nearly 200 years, Venice could not host carnivals, and the art of elaborate masks disappeared (it was also banned in Fascist Italy during the 1930s).
Venice Carnival Today
Although banned for 200 years, carnival was revived in 1979 by a group of locals looking to bring tourists back to Venice.
Although its roots are in debauchery, carnival is now more family-friendly (at least in public). There are still some elements of hedonism present, but they are nothing compared to what they once were.
Venice Carnival today is like a historical re-enactment that you’d find at a renaissance fair. Locals and tourists gather around the canals in stunning costumes and masks, enjoying Venetian delicacies and entertainment.
Things to Do at Carnival in Venice
If you’re looking to join in the festivities, there are a few carnival activities that you’ll want to check out (don’t forget your carnival masks).
The first and most popular thing to do is attend a masquerade ball. Traditionally these events were hosted by wealthy Venetians and attracted hundreds of people dressed in elaborate masks and costumes.
Today, they are much more toned down and attended by people from all walks of life.
The Carnival of Venice is a one-of-a-kind event, made more special by handmade intricate masks. Participants work all year on designing and selecting a mask. Only after they’ve chosen a theme will they work on the rest of their costumes.
Just like the Venetian carnivals of old, masqueraders come from around the world to enter with their designs. Each participant enters a procession through Piazza San Marco, where they show off their wares to onlookers in hopes of winning a prize. Best of all, it’s free for spectators!
During the 10 days of Carnival, there is a costume parade each day. The winners of each daily parade are invited to participate in the grand finale on the final Sunday.
Flight of the Angel
One of the most stunning displays during Carnevale di Venezia is the Flight of the Angel. It’s also one of the oldest traditions, dating back to ancient times. The event now officially kicks off 10 days of Carnival celebrations every year.
The tradition started when a 16th-century Turkish acrobat completed a daring stunt by walking across a rope from a boat anchored in front of Piazza San Marco to the top of the neighboring bell tower. He then paid homage to the Doge by reaching the balcony of Palazzo Ducale on his descent.
The reaction from the crowd was so ecstatic that this act became an annual tradition performed by professional tightrope walkers each Shrove Tuesday.
Tragically, an acrobat died while performing a dangerous stunt during Carnival in 1759. He was attempting to fly down a rope at excessive speed when he fell to his death in front of the horrified crowd. In response, the Doge outlawed similar stunts from any future Carnivals. Eventually, the entire event was banned in 1798.
That is until 1979, when it was revived along with the rest of Carnival.
Today, the winner of last year’s Festa della Marie—a beauty pageant that dates back centuries—has the honor of wearing a period costume that compliments this year’s Carnival theme. They descend from San Marco’s bell tower in the center of Saint Mark’s Square at controlled speed on a tight rope. This event marks the official opening of Carnival.
At the grand opening of Venice Carnival, boats loaded with finger food called Cicchetti navigate the Grand Canal up to Rialto Bridge. Once there, they become floating food stands you can go up to and try.
Festa Delle Marie
One of Carnival’s main parades is the “Festival of Maries.” Every year, locals flock to St. Mark’s Square to see twelve lovely girls parade through the street. This tradition originated when the Venetian Doge would offer homage to twelve beautiful but humble young Venetian women in the form of magnificent jewels (to be used as bridal dowries).
Venice is home to some great Italian dishes, but the fun part is that Venetian dishes often differ from what you might experience in Milan, Rome, or Naples.
For more information on how to eat like a local, we created a guide to the 15 best Venetian foods and drinks.
Venice Carnival Masks and Costumes
One of the many traditions that have made it through the centuries is the use of elaborate Venetian masks and costumes.
Traditionally, Venetian masks were used to ward off evil spirits. Then they were used by the rich to remain anonymous during frivolous behavior and socially or religiously inappropriate activities. Today, however, wearing masks is seen as an expression of creativity and freedom.
According to official records, masks have been present during carnivals dating back to 1268. Back then, the practice of egging women was common among masked men. Thankfully, more mature individuals eventually outlawed this ridiculous practice.
People wore masks for many reasons, mainly to protect their identity and conceal their social status. This allowed them to lead lives that generally would have been frowned upon.
In Venice, anyone could wear a mask and costume to balls and mix with people of all social classes. This allowed Venetians and tourists to be whoever they wanted, whether a peasant pretending to be an aristocrat or a man dressing as a woman. The famous womanizer Casanova even pretended to be a state official so that he could seduce married women.
As the Venetian Carnival became more widespread, it also drew in some less-than-savory individuals. Men began dressing as servants of faith to gain access to convents and act without consequences. Casinos saw an uptick in masked gamblers, who used these disguises to escape their creditors.
To maintain public safety, the government of Venice enacted a series of laws prohibiting men from wearing costumes and masks at night, carrying weapons under their clothing, and entering holy places while masked.
Today, you can buy a variety of Venetian masks and even entire costumes from local shops. Some common examples are the plague doctor mask, period costumes, and women wearing false beards.
With your new Venetian mask and costume, you’ll fit in with the rest of the masked people wandering around the canals and Saint Mark’s square.
Frequently Asked Questions About Venice Carnival
If you’re thinking of visiting Venice, then you probably have some questions. Here are the ones we come across the most.
What Day is the Venice Carnival?
The Venice Carnival is celebrated annually between February and March. The exact dates change each year. This year, the carnival will occur from February 15th to March 4th.
How Long Does the Carnival in Venice Last?
The Carnival of Venice typically lasts 18 days, from the start of Lent until Ash Wednesday.
Is Carnival in Venice Worth It?
Yes, the Venitian Carnival is worth it! The magic and spectacle of this annual event draw in thousands of visitors yearly. From gorgeous costumes and elaborate masks to delicious food and lively parades, there is something for everyone at the Venice Carnival!
Why Do They Celebrate the Carnival of Venice?
The Carnival of Venice has been celebrated since the 12th century when it was a way for Venetians to let loose and enjoy life before the start of the 40-day Lenten fast. Today, Carnival is still a way for people to forget their worries and enjoy themselves with music, dancing, and parades.
What Are the Rules for Wearing Masks at Carnival in Venice?
There are no official rules for wearing masks at Carnival in Venice, but you should be aware that many places will not allow people to enter if they wear face coverings. It is also important to respect others, especially with regard to costumes and masks that may be considered offensive or inappropriate. Lastly, it is illegal to wear a mask at night when the carnival is over.
What Do You Wear to a Carnival in Venice?
At a Carnival in Venice, you can wear anything that expresses your creativity and individuality. Popular choices for costumes include Venetian courtiers, damsels, and harlequins. Colorful masquerade masks are also a must-have for any carnival goer in Venice! Don’t forget, if you don’t have one already, you can buy a beautiful Venetian mask at a local shop. The downside is you’re going to pay a hefty price for one.
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What Food is Eaten at Venice Carnival?
The Venice Carnival is full of delicious food and drinks! The traditional dish of the carnival is a Venetian tapas called frittelle, a fried pastry with sugar and lemon peel. Other popular snacks include bussolai (cookies shaped like a ship’s wheel) and fritole (fried dough dusted with powdered sugar). For drinks, the locals love zabajone, a sweet Venetian liqueur made from Maraschino cherries.
Is the Venice Carnival Free?
Yes, the Venice Carnival is free to attend! You can watch parades, concerts, and shows without paying an entry fee. However, some events may require a ticket, so it is best to check with the local tourist information office ahead of time. Additionally, some activities like boat rides and food tastings may have a fee.
Venice during carnival is an experience like no other. If you can go, even for a day or two, GO! You will not regret it, and don’t be shy about joining in on the festivities. The city comes alive with music, food, and drink. Whether you dress up in a costume or not, make sure to enjoy everything that Venice has to offer during this magical time of year. So grab your Venetian masks and have fun!
Have you been to Carnival in Venice? Let us know in the comments below.