The Carnival of Venice

The Carnival of VeniceCarnival is one of the oldest traditional feasts of Venice, rooted in the history and the culture of the most unique city in the world. Re-launched two decades ago, thanks to its mix of transgression, art, and fun, today the Carnival of Venice is considered by its inhabitants and tourists as an event not to be missed.

Carnival takes place in Venice during the twelve days before the Ash Wednesday with many events all over the city: from improvised street shows to performances put on by the organisers.
The Municipality choose every year a central idea taken from various cultural or show-biz themes.
Several events take place throughout the city, from Carnival feasts and masked balls in private palaces to people in masks who happily invade streets and squares in search of fun...
It's possible to see every kind of costume, from 18th century noblewomen to the most inventive and creative modern costumes!
The heart of Carnival is Saint Mark's Square, with its huge stage for concerts and shows, but also the city's other main squares act as perfect stages for masks who wish to become, at least for a few hours a year, the protagonists of another life.
The culminating moments of Venice Carnival include the flight of angel, which marks the beginning of Carnival celebrations, the water procession, with decorated boats and masked rowers, and the final grand ball on Shrove Tuesday in Saint Mark’s square, with the traditional fireworks show in front of the Duke's palace.


The history of Carnival

It seems that Carnival was already celebrated in the tenth century in Venice, when the Duke Vitale Faliero mentioned it for the first time in some official documents.
In fact, the earliest information regarding the Venice Carnival is to be found in private papers which mention it by referring to a Christian interpretation of the Latin “carrus navalis”, a purification and exorcism rite, celebrated in February, the last month of the Roman calendar.
But Carnival has its roots in many traditions, from the Latin feast of Saturnalia to the Greek feast of Dionysian cults celebrating the start of spring, when masks were used as symbolic representations.

In 1296 Shrove Tuesday, mardi gras, was declared a holiday by the Senate of Venice.
During the Serenissima Republic the celebrations lasted six weeks, from the 26th December to Shrove Tuesday when the end of Carnival announced the beginning of the Lent.
The festivities reached their peak on Carnival Thursday and ended the day before Ash Wednesday, although permission of wearing masks and disguises was often given from October 1 and it was not unusual to attend parties and banquets during Lent.

During Carnival everything was permitted and everyone used to wear a mask behind which any social difference was temporarily abolished. Saint Mark Square and all the other squares of the town became vast stages where people used to dance and play, organizing every sort of entertainment! 
Carnival feasts involved the whole city by breaking all the rules of society.
But Carnival was also a mean of rigid control over human pulsions to water down social tensions and maintain consensus. In fact in the strictly hierarchical Venetian society, it was helpful to give the most humble classes the illusion of becoming similar to the more powerful, even if it was only a gracious concession for a prescribed period of time.

During the XVIII century Carnival parties, entertainments, masks, theatres and its public gambling house, the Ridotto at S. Moisé, became tourist attractions for the whole Europe, and Venice began to welcome thousands of visitors eager to experience its extremely unusual and effervescent atmosphere!

During this period Carnival lasted several months, and this has certainly contributed to the creation of the myth of Venice as a city of pleasure and enjoyment.

The Serenissima Republic fell to the French in 1797 Carnival was abolished by Napoleon.
Carnival celebrations were re-established only when the city was submitted to Austria.
Nowadays masks coming from all over the world use to crowd Venetian squares and Saint Mark square and its cafés. Besides the traditional masks you can see all kind of disguise, and many dances, parties, concerts and performances in theatres are organized.
On the last day, then, out of respect for tradition, the image of Carnival is burnt in St. Mark Square with a firework show on the water in front of it.

The Carnival feasts

During Carnival Venice population attended official festivities in the public squares, with dances, music, theatre performances, live entertainment with acrobats, tightrope walkers, puppeteers, street entertainers and fireworks.

The Thursday before Shrove Tuesday took place the most theatrical and impressive performance of Venetian Carnival: the flight of the Turkish man, which consisted in the acrobatics of a Turkish man whose waist was tied with ropes, who had to ascend from the dock to the belfry of Saint Mark’s bell-tower and then had to go down to the balcony of Palazzo Ducale to offer a bunch of flowers to the Doge who, from there, was watching the show.
The crowd got so excited, that the event was repeated for centuries, with all sorts of variations of the greatest effect. A Dove's Flight took the place of the Turkish acrobat flight, with a large wooden dove used to spill out flowers and confetti on the crowds as it descended. Today the flight it’s performed by a girl dressed as an angel, and it opens the Carnival celebrations.

As well as these public festivities there were numerous private parties in the patrician houses and palaces, where magnificent and sumptious balls took place and gambling very often had its part.
In fact, in the climate of pleasure of the XVIII century Serenissima Republic, the gambling at the Ridotto at S. Moisé, the public gaming house run by the State, became one of the focal points of the Venetian Carnival.

by Roberta Nalesso


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