The Wonders of the Venetian Carnival

Adam Jones | 04/01/2019
History of the carnival in Venice. What to expect at the Venetian Carnival.
Carnival masks and costumes at the traditional festival in Venice

The idea of the Venetian Carnival is one of wonder — filled with colorful masks, rich music, sumptuous balls, energetic parades, elegant dancing and bacchanalian carousing. The exact origins of the festival are unknown but when we delve into Venetian history it appears to have started with a military victory by the Republic of Venice over Aquileia in 1162. To celebrate this win the citizens of Venice began meeting and dancing in San Marco Square.

The Venice Carnival continued until it became an officially recognized celebration during the Renaissance. It would continue to grow after that becoming an even more impressive spectacle meant to demonstrate the prestige and wealth of Venice to the world. The Carnevale Di Venezia eventually became too much of a spectacle and was banished by Holy Roman Emperor Francis II in 1797. After that time the festival long remained dormant, only cropping up for short periods or private celebrations until its resurgence in the modern era in 1979.

Since its modern-day rebirth, the Venice Carnival has once again become a key Venice attraction, with costumes, parades, and banquets bringing in visitors from around the world. Taking place in Venice in February, the dates are slightly different each year, corresponding with Shrove Tuesday 40 days ahead of Easter. Be sure to check this year’s exact dates before making any bookings.

Traditional Venitian carnival attire. Venetian carnival mask.

What to expect

With tourists from all over the globe flocking to all the places to see in Venice, expect your Carnival time to be on the crowded side. Already a bustling tourist hub, Carnival is Venice’s peak time to visit; expect crowds, lines, and available accommodation to match. Ensure you have everything booked well in advance — from hotels to balls to costume arrangements — so you don’t miss out on the fun.

Though there are crowds, this is part of the fun of Carnival. Get ready to see elegantly costumed people parading down every street. You’ll see locals and travellers extravagantly dressed in period costume, or something even more modern and outside the box.

We encourage you to join in on the fun. Arrange for costume rental, bring an outfit from home, or at the very least don a classic Venetian Carnival mask and you’ll fit right into the celebrations.

What To Do at Venice Carnivale

Flight of the Angel

One of the most celebrated events in Venice Carnival history is the Volo dell’Angelo or Flight of the Angel. This event has opened the festivities since the La Serenissima period. This popular event takes place at 12 noon in the Piazza San Marco. An acrobat in an angel costume leaps off the top of the San Marco bell tower and flies through the air to land in the square below. You’ll want to arrive quite early (no later than 11 a.m.) to find a spot where you can see the event. 

Parades

Check your Venetian Carnival dates to make sure you can attend some of the festival’s spectacular parades. Due to Venice’s unique nature, you can watch parades on land and water.

The Festa Veneziana opens the celebrations, featuring wonderfully lit structures floating down the Rio di Cannaregio. This is truly a spectacle of floating light along the canal, with plenty of music, lights and costumed revellers celebrating the beginning of Carnival.

The Festa Veneziana is such an epic parade it’s split into two parts — the latter is the Venetian Festival on the Water. If you can only attend the celebrations for a single day, you’ll want to experience this event. Watch along the Grand Canal as the massive water parade, starring masked & costumed Venetians, sails across the waves to the Cannaregio district. Get ready for more music, tons of delicious Venetian street food, and some of the festival’s most elaborate costumes.

The Festa Delle Marie Parade is also quite an experience; it recreates a historical Venetian beauty pageant. Back in the day, the Doge, the ancient rule of Venice, would be presented with 12 women dressed in some of the most elegant fashions of the day. The winner of the contest received a set of jewels to use in their bridal dowry for marriage.

Masquerades

Masked balls are of course another key part of the celebrations. If you want to attend one of these, you’ll definitely need a beautiful costume. Venice’s most famous masquerade is the exclusive and expensive Doge’s Ball. Make sure you buy tickets well in advance for any balls you want to attend. Most high-end hotels have their own events; there’s also a wide selection of private parties across the city. Reserve in advance and dress to impress.

Traditional Venetian masks. Masks worn at the Venice carnival.

Arsenale

Definitely consider a Carnival visit to Arsenale, the old citadel of Venice. This area will have a wide variety of music, art exhibitions and activities a bit outside of some of Venice’s busy areas. If you’re interested in nightlife, Arsenale is a popular nightlife destination for young party goers after the sun goes down.

Frittelle

Don’t forget to take a bite of frittelle while you’re celebrating in Venice. These fried doughnuts are the signature treats of Carnivale. Made in a wide variety of flavors, shapes and sizes, frittelle are often rolled in sugar or filled with a light vanilla pastry cream.

Final Tips

Carnevale is a very fancy affair in Venice. It doesn’t get as turbulent as it did in the old days, even with the city very busy. Wandering around you should find all kinds of public entertainment in every Sestiere of Venice, so feel free to explore the city. 

If you’re planning on visiting Venice for part or the whole of Carnevale, the last week of celebrations from Wednesday all the way to the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday is considered the best period to visit. Once you’re booked, it’s time to start planning your costume.