As a setting for a carnival, Venice is unique. The city’s location, built across several islands in a lagoon bordering the Adriatic Sea, means that here carnival floats do literally that, gliding along on the water itself rather than chugging down the road on the back of a truck. The maze of narrow pedestrian streets and interlaced canals are a source of discovery at every turn – all the more so if you’re kitted out in a fancy costume or, at the least, a mask – and Venice as a whole is an authentic backdrop for the theatrical celebrations that form the basis of the festival. Ultimately, the sheer visual delight of the city, and the tangible feeling that somehow you are adrift on an island in some parallel universe, are what make Carnival an experience like no other.
The origins of Carnival go back to around 1162, when it was bestowing a celebration of battle victories and honour on the Doge (the ruler of Venice), but it took 134 years before the city senate declared it official. From the fifteenth century, Carnival gathered momentum, reaching its zenith in the eighteenth century but effectively ending with the conquest of the city by Napoleon in 1797. It wasn’t until 1979 that Carnival rediscovered the inspiration and energy that is so apparent today. Reinvented to draw tourists to the city at what used to be (by Venetian standards) a relatively dead time of year, it pretty much took up where it left off in the late 1800s: it’s this eighteenth-century posturing that makes it so different from other European carnivals.
Carnival starts ten days before Shrove Tuesday, and finishes at the strike of midnight on Shrove Tuesday itself. During this time, exploring Venice’s intimate back alleys and canals is well rewarded, mainly because wherever you wander there’s almost always something going on.
Apart from the two weekends of Carnival there are two particularly frenetic evenings, those of the second Thursday, Giovedi Grasso (Fat Thursday), and the last day, Martedi Grasso (Shrove Tuesday), both significant days immediately preceding Lent, and therefore the days of greatest excess. Both nights boast live-music dance spectaculars in Piazza San Marco, with Tuesday’s always being the Notte de la Taranta, the wild, intoxicated dance of those bitten, as the legend goes, by the tarantula; a cavorting shared by thousands and topped off with a massive fireworks display at the tolling of midnight.
Many of the major events are centred on the city’s most famous piazza, Piazza San Marco, where on the first Sunday an “angel’ in white flowing robes (usually a famous Italian athlete) descends from the heights of the San Marco bell tower to land at the feet of a host of historically attired dignitaries. The piazza is usually packed with a seething crowd of thousands, many of whom are togged up in flamboyant costumes that range from closely detailed traditional dress to post-Casanova kitsch: the super-saturated colours and melodramatic flourishes from a theatre of the imagination. Away from the epicentre of Piazza San Marco, Carnival experience disperses itself among the labyrinthine streets and small, atmospheric squares, overflowing with street performers and clusters of (always friendly) exuberance. Piazzetta San Marco is home to performances of Baroque music and Commedia dell’Arte – a form of theatre with its origins way back in the heyday of the original Carnival – while left-field acolytes can seek out little Campo San Luca, offering more edgy live music and maybe some over-confident natives climbing flagpoles freestyle, or a spontaneous DJ set near the Ponte Rialto, where you may find yourself whisked away for a dance with a giant penguin who won’t say no.
flamboyant costumes range from closely detailed traditional dress to post-Casanova kitsch
Larger squares such as Campo Santa Margherita are other focal points, the setting for stages for live music (bizarrely, often reflecting the modern Italian passion for ska and reggae), though probably you will have passed a quartet playing Baroque music in a street only minutes before. There is more focused nightlife around the Stazione Marittima, which forms the venue for dance-orientated diversions, while another of the city’s larger squares, Campo San Polo, has plenty on offer for young children during the day – play areas, music, and small theatre productions.
On the water itself, small flotillas of decorated gondolas periodically sweep through the canals, to the cheers of revellers who crowd the bridges for a spectacular “aerial” view.