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Carnival, or Carnevale, is Venice's answer to Mardi Gras and Fasching. For eight days before Lent each winter, tourists flood the city for an orgy of pageants, commedia dell'arte, concerts, balls, and masked self-display until Shrove Tuesday signals an end to the party.
Carnevale isn't just a Venetian tradition; similar festivities occur throughout much of the Roman Catholic world, including other cities in Italy. The term "carnevale" comes from the Latin for "farewell to meat" and suggests a good-bye party for the steaks and stews that Catholics traditionally gave up during the weeks of fasting before Easter. The masquerade aspect of Carnival is even older: the Romans celebrated winter with a fertility festival where masks were worn by citizens and slaves alike.
In its glory days of the 1700s, the Carnevale di Venezia began on December 26 and lasted until Ash Wednesday, with mask-wearing and other unofficial activities continuing well into the spring. The nonstop partying, gambling, and general irresponsibility reflected the decline of the Venetian Republic, which had begun to lose wealth and power with the rise of Dutch and British trade in the 1600s. After Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice in 1797, the Republic was finished and so were the desultory remnants of Carnival.
Carnevale was a mere historical curiosity by the time William Dean Howells, U.S. consul to Venice in Abraham Lincoln's administration, wrote Venetian Life in 1865. He describes a Shrovetide ceremony dating back to 1162 that "was very popular and continued a long time, though I believe not till the fall of the Republic." More recent books, such as Time-Life's The Great Cities: Venice (1976) and Blue Guide: Northern Italy (1978) don't even mention Carnival.
In 1979, a group of foreign and other non-Venetian organizers attempted to revive Carnevale in the same spirit that provokes American historical societies to organize mock battles on Independence Day or to stage charity balls with Victorian costumes and themes. The modern-day merchants of Venice quickly recognized the economic potential of this Phoenix-like Carnevale, and a new tourist season was born. Lisa St. Aubin de Terán describes this phenomenon in her book, Venice: The Four Seasons:
"This recent revival of the ancient Carnival has not struck a chord in the hearts of the citizens, but it has touched a new button on the cash register. The whole festival has become an organized debacle that most Venetians suffer with ill grace."
"...The finale of fireworks over the lagoon packs the Piazza San Marco and the Riva degli Schiavoni so tightly that the oohs and aahs of admiration for the bombardment of noise and color is muted by the sheer crush. This last homage to the water is, perhaps, the one moment of real excitement of the whole affair. The mixture of splendid exploding rain and the crowd of over a hundred thousand people crammed into a small contained space make for a communal burst of adrenalin."
No special preparations need to be made for Carnival, except to book a room or apartment well in advance (see our Venice Hotel Guide) and bring enough money for high-season prices and a costume or mask. It's unwise to stay outside the city and commute to the festivities, since traffic is heavy and the police have been known to block the causeway from the mainland as a deterrent to overcrowding.
These sections of our Venice Travel Blog and Maggie in Venice dog blog have captioned photos, obervations, and first-hand reports from the Carnevale di Venezia.
Carnevale di Venezia
The official Carnival site has a calendar of events and other useful information. (Note: This site is most useful immediately before and during Carnevale.)
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