You hear a soft chuckle and the swish of a cloak from a dark Venetian alley. A strange inhuman face appears in the light of a streetlamp, casting a sharp-angled shadow. Unmoving and ominous, you cannot read its intent, and a chill of fear cascades down your spine. Then you realize it’s just a partier in a mask – you’re in Venice, Italy for Carnevale!
Venice’s historic and popular carnival (or carnevale) runs during the two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, ending the day before, at midnight on Fat Tuesday (also known as “Mardi Gras” or “Shrove Tuesday”).
This medieval festival re-emerged during the 1970’s as a tool to increase interest in Venetian culture, where revelers would don masks of various types to disguise their identity and social class, thereby enabling more egalitarian mingling across social boundaries. Gamblers, criminals and lovers on illicit romantic trysts would exploit the masks for similar anonymity. Over the years, many laws were passed by the government in Venice outlawing the extravagant disguises, to prevent such undesirable mischief. Now, of course, such laws have been lifted to allow the million or so visitors the carnival attracts to enjoy themselves without the threat of arrest for simple clothing violations.
Mask-wearing has always been a pervasive part of the lifestyle and festival scene in Venice. Indeed, so frequent was the number and procession of festivals that Venetians could actually spend as much (if not more) time in a mask than without. Such demand for masks meant an entire industry of mask-making sprang up in Venice, where the highly-respected occupation has become guilded, giving rise to their own special laws and a unique position in society. They’re not cheap either. Some of the more expensive papier-mache masks can set a well-heeled partier back several thousand dollars!
There are several types of mask; a popular choice is the Bauta, which covers the whole face but protrudes at the bottom to allow the wearer to eat and drink without removing it.
The Columbine (also known as the Columbina or Columbino) is a smaller mask, usually more delicate and ornate, that only covers the eyes and nose, and is mounted atop a baton which is held, or attached to the head via a ribbon or cord.
The Larva (Volto)
This mask is mainly white and full face, and is usually worn with a tricorno hat and cloak. Typically made of a fine wax cloth, these masks are light and more comfortable than the other types, lending themselves to more prolonged carousing, hence their popularity.
Medico Della Peste (The Plague Doctor)
A long-beaked mask, traditionally white with round crystal eye covers which can give a somewhat eerie appearance, especially if worn with the traditional black hat and cloak.
Planning your trip
Nowadays the partying in Venice is centered around street performers and music in St. Mark’s Square, though the costumes and mask-wearing can be seen all over the city. Arts events such as theater and opera abound, and there are grand balls and other events. The schedule changes yearly so it’s best to check the latest info on one of these websites:
Hotel rooms in Venice get booked up quickly for the carnevale, so it’s a good idea to make reservations well in advance. It may seem like it’s a long time from now, but it’s not too soon to start planning your trip.
Venice, Italy is amply served by two international airports, and these are probably the best way to get to the city. Marco Polo International Airport (British Airways, US Airways, Delta, Air France, KLM) is less than five miles from the city center. Budget airlines like RyanAir and Wizz Air serve the further of the two, Treviso Airport, which is twelve miles distant.