Carnival time is over, and after getting our hands dirty at the Battle of the Oranges and dancing the night away at Carnaval de Gualeguaychù, we’ll take you to the oldest and grandest carnival of all, the wonderful Carnevale di Venezia.
Take our hand and let us lead you on a wander of the backstreets and canals on this great city, between Casanova and a crazy night out.
Carnevale di Venezia and tourism
Venice must be the most stereotyped city in history. A city that has been vilified and denatured by tourism, left to little more than a shadow of its former self. An amusement park for package tourists. A photo set for cruise-ship passengers. Another box to tick by bucket-listers.
A beautiful one, though. I agreed with all of the above until I visited Venice from Milan during Carnival. It wasn’t my first visit; it was probably my twentieth. My hometown, Milan, is a mere two-three hours away from the Serenissima. I remember my first visit, during a school trip in the late Nineties. I stood speechless just outside of Santa Lucia station, my first glimpse of the Grand Canal. I had never seen anything so beautiful.
Unfortunately, my first experience of the city was soon to be marred by the incessant click-clicking of cameras around me, pigeon-feed sellers in Piazza San Marco, scores of souvenir shops overloaded with cheap junk.
Venice was indeed beautiful, but it had sold out it soul.
For this reason, I was in two minds when I decided to visit during Carnival. To make matters worse, I could only go on a Saturday. Let’s go and see what the fuss was about, I thought, as I elbowed my way through the multilingual crowds on Strada Nuova. I took the usual tour I did during my numerous Venice jaunts. Straight down Strada Nuova, a quick loop of the Ghetto (which was empty, being a Saturday), off backstreets left right and centre, until those ubiquitous signs led me back – as they always did – to the city’s beating heart, Piazza San Marco.
All around, people in magnificent costumes paraded around the square, stopping for a few snaps in front of the colonnaded porticos and the domed basilica. Most had full masks, covering their faces. Masks have always been the main feature of the Carnival of Venice, and one of the most characteristic customs of Venetian society.
History of Carnevale di Venezia
Until Carnival was outlawed in 1797, citizens were allowed to wear masks for most of the year; between St Stephen’s Day and Shrove Tuesday, on Ascension, and between October 5th and Christmas. The bauta, Venice’s iconic mask, was even worn by peers during political debates. The reasons for this custom are obscure, with some arguing it was a way to reject rigid class hierarchy in European society. What is documented is that mask makers used to be one of the most powerful guilds in Venice, enjoying special privileges and honours. I was amazed by the beauty of the masks and costumes.
The impenitent romantic, I imagined families sewing silks and chiffons to compete for the title of la maschera più bella. I dreamt of artisans hunched down in their workshops, moulding papier machè to create that perfect bauta or medico della peste mask. Imagine my disappointment, when I heard two masked ladies conversing in perfect English over who got the best ‘Carnival weekend with mask’ deal.
Leaving touristy Venezia behind
I quickly left and headed to Riva degli Schiavoni, the lovely but hyper-touristy seafront promenade. I meant to walk to my favourite part of Venice; the Arsenale, the once-mighty shipyard that gave birth to the Republic’s invincible navy. I meant to spend some quiet time around the Arsenale, then perhaps circle back and walk down to the Zattere, where the one of the few remaining squeri (gondola building workshops) still exists.
At sunset, the town was far less crowded. Day trippers headed back to the station, tourists went back to their hotels. There was only one category I hadn’t seen for the whole day: Venetians.
I have always thought Venetians were weird types. They speak dialect. They move about with boats. Some even nurture dreams of an independent Venice. Truth was, after spending the summer of 1993 at a camp where all other kids were Venetian, and being ostracised for three weeks because I didn’t understand their dialect, I had never again met a Venetian. Until that night, which was soon to become one of the most unforgettable nights of my life.
Carnevale di Venezia with locals
I met some friends who knew the city well, and took me on a bacari tour. Originally comes Venice, this type of establishment is now famous the world over. In a bacaro, you order ombre, red wine in small glasses, and cicheti, sort of tapas-like snacks. Typical cicchetti include sarde in saor (sardines with onion and vinegar), fried meatballs and baccalà tartines. Then, something strange happened. At each bacaro we stopped, there were more and more locals, and fewer tourists.
With each ombra de vin, everything started to make a little sense. Either I had ventured into an area of Venice that I had never visited before, or the people of the city had come out, to own, walk it, run it, enjoy it once again. This was a Carnival that didn’t need swanky make up or fancy costumes. It was a Carnival of loud Pitura Freska music played in no-nonsense bars. A Carnival of tiny ombre skulled while the breeze blew freezing from the canal. A Carnival of rock concerts played in the campi and calli, that had been trampled by hordes of visitors until a few hours earlier.
I have since visited Venice many more times. It is one of my favorite places in the whole world.
The masks were beautiful, though.
Scroll down for some more carnival snaps!