Italy's biggest Mardi Gras Celebration
Winter may be a slow time in Italy, marked by cold, rainy days and shops closed for "ferie". However, one bright spot in this bleak, gloomy time is "Carnevale". Known as Mardi Gras in the US, Carnevale is a weeks-long festival that usually takes place in mid-January through early March, depending on the Lenten calendar. If you’re traveling through Italy during this time of year, you won’t want to miss out on Carnevale.
Full of float parades, confetti, and masked costumes, Carnevale is a time for indulging in pleasures (the Italian equivalent to "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas") before Lent, the forty-day Catholic period of fasting and penitence before Easter, begins. The grand finale always takes place on Fat Tuesday (Martedi’ Grasso), which falls on March 5th this year. Since the following day, Ash Wednesday, is a somber day of observance, Fat Tuesday is when partyers go all out, and is typically when the best floats in the parade are shown, so this is the best time to go.
Carnevale is celebrated all over the country, with big events taking place in Emilia-Romagna’s Cento or the Tuscan seaside town of Viareggio, but the biggest and most famous Carnevale is in Venice.
But why Venice? When Carnevale is celebrated all throughout the country, why is Venice’s particular event the most iconic or famous worldwide? The history is murky, but Carnevale’s distinct traditions may have originated in Venice, with the earliest accounts of Venice’s Carnevale going as far back as the eleventh century. Many of the traditions and events associated with Venice’s Carnevale may have originated as celebrations for the Doge’s military victories, or as an attempt to keep the discontented populace distracted, or the licentious nobility occupied. In other words, it was a way for the people of Venice to celebrate the Republic, while also a tool for the Doge to keep everyone happy and under control. Over the centuries, the elaborate masks, mesmerizing floats, and fanciful festivities like the Flight of the Angels became as iconic and near-mythical elements of Venice’s global images as its unique architecture and network of canals.
Venice’s 2019 Carnevale takes place from Saturday, February 16th to Tuesday, March 5th. The whole city is abuzz in the weeks leading up to Carnevale. If you’re worried about being caught in Carnevale without an ornate mask or a fun costume, or about missing out on all the best deals, don’t be. Most hotels and tourist shops around the city have amazing deals and selections on masks, costumes, and other fun fare for tourists (more on masks here).
So you’re lucky enough to be in Venice for Carnevale. What’s on the itinerary?
Venice Carmival 2019: Special Events
Venice has a host of special Carnevale events that take place every year. One annual event worth checking out is the Festival on the Water. On the mornings of February 16th and 17th, you can witness a procession of gilded gondolas decorated as floats sailing across the canals. If the crowds are too much for you, you can watch from your hotel window or listen to the music of the passing boats. The Festival on the Water is also a wonderful opportunity to taste some traditional Venetian delicacies, as many gastronomic stalls will open along the gondolas’ route.
Another traditional event is the Procession and Feast of the Maries. This tradition originated sometime between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in the time of the Venetian Doges. Every year twelve young and beautiful girls would be selected from modest families within the Republic, and the Doge would pay homage to them by showering them in jewels, and granting them large dowries for advantageous marriages. Today, it is a fun opportunity to see women wearing traditional Venetian dresses from the medieval and Renaissance periods. This year the Procession and Feast of the Maries will take place on the afternoon of February 23rd.
And last but not least, an annual event you absolutely cannot miss is the Flight of the Angel. Arguably the most famous and fantastical of the traditions, it has been an essential part of the Venetian Carnevale since as far back as the Venetian Republic’s splendid Serenissima period. An unknown female guest to the city, decked out in a gorgeous angelic costume, will descend along a rope from the top of the bell tower in San Marco to the middle of the piazza. Here, she will be welcomed by a crowd of costumed parade-goers who will all pay homage to the Doge and Venice’s rich history as a Republic. This year, the Flight of the Angel will happen on February 24th from 11:00 to 12:00 in Piazza San Marco.
There is more to the Venetian Carnevale than just flying angels, floating gondolas, and marching Marias. Every other day of Carnevale will see a contest for the most beautiful masks of that day, making it a fine opportunity to see some gorgeous, wild, and unforgettable Carnevale masks. On the night of February 23rd, there will be a street performance with musicians, dancers, and fire-throwers. Lastly, also on the night of February 23rd, there is an elegant and almost-magical dinner and ball, in the sophisticated Renaissance ballroom of the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, offering enchanting views of the Grand Canal and a feast fit for a Doge. If you are interested in attending, reservations must be made online on the official Venice Carnevale website.