experience - Venice Carnival
Written by Brian Johnston
Venice Carnival, one of the worlds most atmospheric festivals, returns to the city of canals this month. Don mask and cloak and join the party for a celebration that brings the Renaissance to life.
As high tides nibble at the feet of ornate palaces and fog sets in, Venice in winter unfolds a particular charm. It might be chilly and grey, but the city comes alive with colour and music. It's Carnival time again, when elaborate costume balls and gala dinners are the highlight of the city's social calendar. Squares erupt in entertainments: flame-tossing acrobats, buskers dressed as clowns, lively street theatre. Drama and mystery are in the air.
Venice's famous Carnival started in 1162 and for centuries was known for its extravagance. Revived in 1979 to showcase Venetian culture and history, it now runs for ten days prior to Shrove Tuesday, falling in late January or during February (January 26 to February 12 this year). With locals and tourists dressed in costumes and masks, it does a superb job of evoking Venice in its flamboyant and dissolute heyday. Head to Piazza San Marco for an up-close look at highly elaborate Carnival costumes on display.
Among other delights are an ice-skating rink on Campo San Polo, and concerts by international stars on Piazza San Marco.
New for this year is the revival of another tradition, in which actors lead you around the city's hidden courtyards, and enact historic scenes involving famous Venetian characters such as Casanova.
A trip along the Grand Canal by public ferry or gondola is an absolute highlight of Venice. Yes, it's a 'tourist' thing, but it's compelling. This is the city's main thoroughfare, flanked by historic mansions and churches, and jammed with delivery boats and gondolas. During Carnival, the Grand Canal is especially wonderful as the scene of a floating historical parade, during which motorised boats and electricity are banned. As evening descends, the waters of the canal turn purple and the sky is brushed with Tintoretto clouds. Lights twinkle from thousands of candles, illuminating rowing boats and gondolas full of costumed merrymakers: Venice to perfection.
Masks have always played a prominent role in the Carnival, and mascheri or mask-makers once formed an influential city guild. Traditionally, Carnival masks are made of porcelain, leather, or even glass. Nowadays, they're more likely to be crafted from papier-mâché and decorated with feathers, rhinestones, and gold leaf. They represent characters from the improvisational Italian plays known as commedia dell'arte, such as the harlequin clown, his wife Columbina, or the more alarming, long-beaked Plague Doctor. Masks are on sale year-round in Venice workshops, making for an instantly recognisable and decorative souvenir.