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Venetians take to the piazzas and streets for the pre-Lent holiday of Carnivale. The festival traditionally marked the unbridled celebration that preceded Lent, the period of penitence and abstinence prior to Easter. (Carne Vale –literally – “farewell to meat”) Nowadays it lasts some 5 to 10 days, culminating in the Friday through Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Carnivale officially starts 10 days before martedi grasso (Shrove Thursday), so the exact dates depend upon when Easter falls.
Well before the opening, traditional carnival goods, such as fritelle, a fried, spiced, or cream-filled racine doughnut, appear in bakeries.
Each year, the Carnivale opens with a series of posh balls and private parties which usually aren’t open to the general public. However, the Doge’s Ball is a fantastic exception. It is held in the 15th century Palazzo Pisani Moretta on the Grand Canal the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. Historical costumes are required but don’t worry as you can easily hire them, if your budget allows. The ball itself isn’t exactly cheap at €500 per person, but it can be the extravagant experience of a lifetime.
Even if you don’t attend a ball, there’s still plenty of fun to be had in the streets. Musical and cultural events, many of them free of charge, appeal to all tastes, nationalities, ages, and budgets. The city’s dozens of squares host everything from reggae to jazz to chamber music. Special art exhibits are mounted in numerous museums and galleries.
Crowds at the Carnival of Venice
Carnivale is not for those who dislike crowds. The crowds, in fact, are what it’s all about. All of life becomes a stage, and everyone is an actor upon it. Carnivale relives the glory days of the 1700s, when Venetian life was at its most extravagant, which is why masks and costumes emphasise the historical aspect.
You might see the Three Musketeers riding the vaporetto, or your waiter may be dressed as a nun. The places to be seen in costume are the cafes lining Piazza San Marco. Don’t expect to be seated at a full view window seat unless your costume is really top notch.
Test the competition with the pictures of the Venice Carnival on
Schedule of the Venice Carnival
The first Saturday sees a masked procession and party in the Piazza San Marco, followed the next day by the highlight of the first week, the volo della Colombina, when a female acrobat, masked like the Colombina (figure from the Comedy of Art), swoops down a wire from the top of the Campanile to the Piazza below, scattering candies to the spectators, mainly children. Thursday sees the competition for the best costume, Friday a masked open-air ball in the Piazza, and Saturday a masked gondola procession along the Grand Canal.
Celebrations carry on until Shrove Thursday, when the bells of San Francesco della Vigna toll at midnight. But before they do, the grand finale features clowns, acrobats, and fireworks over the lagoon. This is a celebration of history, art, theatre and drama. Venice offers an incomparable stage for such an event.