Venice Carnival: Between Tradition And Innovation

700 years since it began — and despite some setbacks — the Venice Carnival is still going strong. We take a look at both its history and present.

Venice Carnival
A man in costume with two lions, the symbol of Venice. Photo: Osvaldo Di Pietrantonio/Il Ballo del Doge.

The carnival of Venice is one of the world’s most fascinating events. And after more than 900 years it is still able to exert its charm and a veil of mystery.

The term carnival was used for the first time in a text written by Doge Vitale Falier in 1094, in which he speaks of public entertainment and celebrations. In the lagoon city, the carnival became a public holiday only in 1296, when the Senate of the Republic of Venice declared the last day of Lent a festivity. Although the duration of the celebrations has changed over time — in the past the festivities could last up to six weeks, while today they last for about ten days — the charm of the carnival permeates the city of Venice throughout the year.

In fact, between one calle and another, as the narrow streets of the city are called, one can find ateliers of sumptuous and sophisticated clothes, made with care and precision to bring back to life during the celebrations the ancient times of the city, and mask stores of all genres, where one can, in any month of the year, create and decorate their own mask.

Whoever has been at least once in their life in Venice during the month of February cannot help but be fascinated by the atmosphere: in the city the vibe is effervescent and transgressive, the streets full of people in masks and a triumph of colors, scents, folklore, and tradition adds the last touch. From tradition to modernity, the carnival remains an unmissable festival and one of the most internationally known and loved symbols of Venice.

Venice carnival
Festivities at the Doge’s Ball. Photo: Osvaldo Di Pietrantonio, Il Ballo del Doge.

The traditions and celebrations in the past

The institution of the carnival was an event that granted to the lower classes a period of leisure, dancing, and celebrations labeled by the Republic of Venice as a ‘booster’ against tensions and discontent that often arose from the poorer classes. Disguise, the essence of this festival, allowed a social leveling, as the identity was hidden behind the mask and Venice became the most picturesque and charming stage in the world.

In various areas of the city, especially in Riva degli Schiavoni and in Piazza San Marco, stages were set up on which jugglers, acrobats, and musicians performed. Street vendors displayed their wares from distant countries and sold sweets of all kinds, such as dried fruit, chestnuts, and fritòle (fried bread dough).

With time, however, the celebrations began to include lavish parties and masquerade balls, especially hosted by aristocrats in Venetian palaces, that became majestic and allowed many excesses, such as libertinism, and often even criminal actions.

Venice carnival
Acrobats at the Doge’s Ball. Photo: Osvaldo Di Pietrantonio, Il Ballo del Doge.

In fact, carnival became a great occasion for criminals to commit crimes. Especially after sunset there were many muggings and harassment so it was decreed a ban on walking masked in the city after dark. Another example could be found in the possibility of men to disguise themselves as a woman and have free access to sacred places or monasteries to perform libertine acts with religious women. In order to avoid the repetition of these behaviors, it was forbidden to enter in a mask in all religious places.

In spite of this, in 1700 Venice became the most famous place in Europe for pleasure, game, masquerade, and irresponsibility. It was the Venice of Giacomo Casanova: festive, superficial, playful, so much so that his fame has crossed the centuries and the term ‘casanova’ has taken on the meaning of unscrupulous seducer.

However, the splendor of Venice and that of the carnival were both extinguished in 1797, when following the fall of the Serenissima there was a decline and Napoleon, for security reasons, decided to totally prohibit the disguises and the celebrations. The event was only restored to the form in which it is celebrated today in the late 1970s, after centuries of sober celebrations following Napoleon’s empire and after the prohibitions decided by Mussolini and the Italian fascist government.

Masked person in Piazza San Marco. Photo: Pascal Riben on Unsplash.

The carnival today

Although the period of celebration has been reduced to only ten days, there remains an unchanged sense of fun and freedom as well as unity between citizens and tourists. Today, the carnival in Venice lasts from the Saturday before Fat Thursday until Shrove Tuesday and it has become a spectacular touristic experience that attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world.

Among the traditional events that have been revisited and adapted in a modern key are the Feste delle Marie (Feast of the Maries) and the Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel). The first takes place on the first Saturday of the carnival and involves 12 young girls — the Marie — who parade through the streets of the city in the direction of San Marco with lots of musical accompaniment. Subsequently, the Maria of the year is elected, that is to say the most beautiful girl.

The custom comes from a real historical episode that happened on the day of the purification of the Virgin Mary. On this particular day, 12 unfortunate brides who were about to receive, together with their sweetheart, the blessing to get married, were kidnapped by the pirates because of the jewels they wore for the occasion. The Venetians, of course, joined forces and managed to free them all and, as a sign of gratitude to the Virgin Mary, created the Festa delle Marie during which, in addition to the blessing of couples, the 12 most beautiful young women in the city, belonging to the poorest families, were chosen, and entrusted to wealthy families so that they could be provided with a dowry and get married.

The Volo dell’Angelo, instead, is held on carnival Sunday and is one of the most famous openings of the event. In the past, it was named the ‘Flight of the Dove’ as, from the bell tower of San Marco, a mechanical bird was made to descend to the Palazzo Ducale. Since 2001, though, the mechanical dove has been replaced by a real woman who is securely harnessed. This tradition has historical roots too and dates back to the middle of the 16th century when a young Turk walked on a rope from the tower bell to the Doge’s palace to pay him homage.

With time the program of the carnival’s celebrations has also been enriched by some innovations such as the parade on the water, during which the canals become a liquid catwalk where lighted and colorful boats parade or the contest of the most beautiful mask in which everyone can take part.

Venice carnival
Antonia Sautter with some guests at the Doge’s Ball. Photo: Osvaldo Di Pietrantonio, Il Ballo del Doge.

The Doge’s Ball: the most exclusive masquerade ball

Alongside the public celebrations open to anyone, some luxurious events have been created. The most awaited, coveted, and exclusive event of the Venice carnival, according to Vanity Fair, is the Doge’s Ball. The soirée, regarded as one of the most glamorous in the world, is reserved only for 400 guests and is held at the historic Palazzo Pisani Moretta on the Grand Canal. The dress code for participants requires the use of a refined masquerade ball costume which can be purchased or rented in one of the many ateliers in the city, including that of Antonia Sautter, the creator of the event.

The masquerade ball came to life in 1994 and since then it has been considered an international happening, an artistic event, and an unforgettable experience reserved to celebrities and to anyone else who desires to live a dream for a night. Some of the celebrities who took part in the Doge’s Ball have been David Bowie, Diego Dalla Palma, Antonio Banderas, Vivienne Westwood, and Alberta Ferretti.

Some moments during the Doge’s Ball. Photo: Osvaldo Di Pietrantonio, Il Ballo del Doge.

Indeed, the participants, teleported back in time, can feel the atmosphere and the splendor of the aristocracy at the time of the Serenissima, becoming the protagonists of a fairy tale. The soirée offers the tasting of a gourmet dinner whose menu is created for the occasion by a chef who revisits, in a contemporary key, the flavors and products of the tradition. Over the course of dinner, the guests are entertained by a colorful, stunning, and varied show with the participation of many different artists: singers, dancers, art directors, actors, acrobats, costume designers. Finally, for the after-dinner, a disco party is organized. Tickets are quite expensive as they start from about €800 only for the after-party and reach €3,500 not including costume rental. Yet, given the selection, the luxury, and the exclusivity that the event wants to maintain it could not be otherwise.

Although celebrations in recent years have suffered a forced stop due to the pandemic, today tourists and Venetians have finally removed the face masks — only in outdoor locations and in compliance with the social distancing rules — to wear carnival masks and costumes. Although the remaining restrictions and a sense of civic duty have led to the cancellation of some of the most anticipated attractions, such as the Volo dell’Angelo, the city is slowly returning to life and the carnival will continue to bring its vibrant energy to Venice.