Come and carnival in Venice
Written by Gillian Price
Venice resident and writer Gillian Price delves into this wonderful city to show us a great time during its enchanting age-old celebrations.
The whole of Venice is transformed into an open-air film set as crowds bedecked in glorious Renaissance costumes throng the traffic-less streets and squares. Never knowing what you’ll encounter around the next corner is half the fun.
February means mid-winter in Venice, and strange as it may seem, it’s a perfect time of year for celebrations. The island city can put on brilliant sunshine and even fog, when a cloak is lowered over palace and canal alike, blurring outlines and making it feel even more romantic than usual. You can easily slip back centuries and imagine yourself in the Renaissance. It’s not hard, as Venice itself – its very layout and buildings – have hardly changed at all.
The origins of the Carnival festivities can be traced back to the 11th century, when people would dress up in costumes and masks so as not to be recognised, and venture out in anonymity, free from class restrictions, to enjoy themselves with no holds barred. The zenith came in the Renaissance period, when the whole of Italy was abuzz with art, music, theatre, and much more. Carnival fell into decline in the 19th century but was revived in 1979 – to everyone’s delight.
Many visitors don a costume – though the majority simply slip a mask over their face. Children throw coloured-paper confetti and streamers over passers-by, and impromptu bands enliven the streets. Visitors who come unprepared can always have their face painted by the art students at stalls. Assuming a brand-new persona for a day can be delightfully liberating – and great fun. Become a Venetian countess, a space invader, Robin Hood, the Sun King, or even a kangaroo. Creativity and inventiveness know no bounds at this time of year.
For stage designer-turned-costumist Stefano Nicolao, “costumes must be credible”, a mission borne out by the great demand for his creations. In his 1,000m2 premises (Fondamenta della Misericordia, Cannaregio 2590) with an army of seamstresses, he has 10,000 pieces – including dozens of 17th and 18th-century originals that act as his inspiration. Billowing skirts, lacy-necked dresses, embroidered waistcoats, and jackets fashioned from precious fabrics such as silk and velvet hang in rows. Decorations are often tiny conterie glass beads, made on the nearby island of Murano and threaded into delicate flowers. There’s an especially magnificent peacock costume in iridescent blues and greens, with a long tail of feathers. As Nicolao points out, if you order a bespoke costume for Carnival instead of hiring one, you can keep it and wear it again and again at events in your home country.
Masks are usually handcrafted papier mâché in moulds. When the layers dry they are painted and embellished with coloured feathers and sparkling rhinestones for added effect. As well as the traditional Venetian bauta mask worn with a long black cloak and three-peaked hat, one all-time favourite is a simple white mask with a very long nose and spectacles; this was for the plague doctor in the Middle Ages to protect him from infection. Masks are great souvenirs and fascinating talking pieces if you hang them on your wall at home.
A strong incentive to get dressed up are the awards for the most beautiful costume and mask that are given on a daily basis in St Mark’s Square – from February 7 to 17. The grand finale ‘best of all’ is judged by an international panel of costume and fashion designers.
Each year, Carnival has a different theme, and this year it is ‘food’. The festivities will be off to an animated start on Saturday January 31, with waterborne circus acts on the main canal in the Cannaregio district, followed on the Sunday by decorated rowing boats. The canal banks will host stands serving traditional local fare such as sarde in saor (sardines marinated in onions and vinegar) and bigoi in salsa (thick dark spaghetti with anchovies and onions).
But top of the gastronomic list come the sweet delights, traditional at Carnival. Windows of cafés and cake shops are stacked with trays of fritoe, scrumptious fritters studded with sultanas, pine nuts, and candied fruit and sprinkled with sugar. One luscious variant has a rich cream filling. Galani are crisp fried sheets of pastry flavoured with vanilla and a hint of lemon rind, and liberally doused with icing sugar, while castagnole are small crunchy pastry balls.
Chocolate is never far from reach. At this time of year it is moulded into tiny mask shapes that make a lovely souvenir; try VizioVirtù Cioccolateria (Calle del Campaniel, San Polo 2898A). The Italians tend to go for the dark, bitter variety, and one taste sensation is a cup of hot chocolate, cioccolata calda, thick and luscious. One of the best places to drink one is at Rosa Salva, the city’s best-loved pasticceria (cake shop). It has been a family business since 1879, and now Antonio Rosa Salva – fifth generation – is in charge, delighting Venetian taste buds. Their old-style boutique with decorated glass and wood counter stands on the lovely square Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo.
However, the most memorable place to sip a cappuccino, nibble on a pastry, listen to the live orchestra, and watch the passing throngs is Florian’s in St Mark’s Square. This is the world’s oldest coffee house and its doors have been open since 1720. As well as outside tables, it has cosy rooms decorated with gold corniced mirrors, where customers are served by white-jacketed waiters carrying silver trays.
Two unmissable Carnival events begin with the Procession of the Marias, 12 young girls in beautiful Renaissance costumes on Saturday February 7, followed on the Sunday by the spectacular Flight of the Dove (Volo della Colombina) when an acrobat is launched on a high wire from the very top of the Campanile (bell tower) in St Mark’s Square. Awestruck onlookers are showered with coloured-paper confetti as she slowly descends.
One afternoon, get yourself down to the Arsenale, the historic former shipbuilding yard. Here acrobats and musicians perform on waterborne platforms, and fireworks and lighting effects illuminate the sky after dark. For those who like partying and dancing into the small hours, there’s also a disco.
Although Carnival lasts from January 31 to February 17 this year, the best time to come is during the final 10 days so you can enjoy the top balls and events. Key dates are Thursday, February 12 through the weekend to Martedì Grasso, Tuesday, February 17.
The sound of Venice
Music is synonymous with Venice – for starters, Vivaldi and Monteverdi were locals – and is fundamental to Carnival. For lovers of classical music, where better to enjoy a performance than at the city’s glorious 18th-century opera house Teatro La Fenice. The name means ‘phoenix’, shown on the façade emblem, as the building has risen from the ashes after burning down three times – the last time in 1996. Visitors are in luck as four wonderful operas are scheduled for the Carnival season: Verdi’s popular tragic love story La traviata, Rossini’s comic Il signor Bruschino, then two spectacular productions by Donizetti – L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale. The superbly decorated theatre is conducive to elegance, and the best way to attend is dressed in costume, a guaranteed way to enhance this special night out, especially if you go for an individually partitioned box (palco).
Ballo del Doge
There’s a wonderful choice of masked balls during Carnival, but you can’t go wrong with the sumptuous time-tested Ballo del Doge, organised by the indefatigable Antonia Sautter since 1994. Her motto is ‘I dream therefore I am’. Glide by gondola up to the candlelit waterfront entrance to the Palazzo Pisani Moretta on the. This year it falls on Saturday, February 14, and the theme is ‘Cupid in Wonderland’.
Aman Canal Grande Venice
The marvellous luxury Aman hotel occupies the two adjoining Papadopoli palaces on the Grand Canal. It’s a haven from the hustle and bustle of Carnival, with its authentic peaceful atmosphere and vast piano nobile guest lounges hung with Murano glass chandeliers. The Aman’s elegant motor launch collects guests at the airport.
Calle Tiepolo 1364, San Polo, Tel: +39 041 2707333
Reserve a table at the Michelin-starred MET Restaurant (in the 5-star Hotel Metropole), a short stroll along the waterfront from St Mark’s Square. The cuisine is contemporary but closely linked to traditional Italian food and the seasons. The Carnival menu features veal flavoured with cocoa, chestnut, and pomegranate; a seafood parcel; and a luscious chocolate sphere.
Riva degli Schiavoni, San Marco 4149, Tel: +39 041 5240034
Visit mask maker extraordinaire Mario Belloni at Ca’ Macana. He’s happy for visitors to watch as he crafts plaster models and moulds to be used for papier mâché masks. And you can step in and get your hands dirty if you’d like to paint and decorate your own mask.
Calle delle Botteghe, Dorsoduro 3172, Tel: +39 041 2776142
Distance: 4,142 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 35 minutes