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Venice Carnival: A Survival Guide

The first Venice carnival took place in 1162 and despite being banned 600 years later when the Republic of Venice fell to Austria, it is still going strong today! The carnival took place occasionally throughout the nineteenth century, and the Venice carnival 2019 promises to be the biggest yet!

Today we’ll be looking at a few things that you might find useful such as the type of events that take place, balls, competitions and water parades. We’ll also look at the most important part of the festival, the Venice carnival masks & costumes. There are a plethora of activities to partake in during the Venice carnival 2019 such as ice skating and beauty competitions. The main events are definitely the mask competitions and masquerade balls, and so we will also be looking at these!

Venice carnival



The carnival begins on the weekend before Shrove Thursday on March 5th with the ‘flight of the angel’. The 'flight' began as a tribute to the Doge (Duke of Venice) from an acrobat and has become a tradition. Using only a pole, he started from a boat tied in Riva degli Schiavoni. From here the acrobat ascended to the top of St Mark’s Tower and onto Doge’s Palace. This act has changed over the years due to an acrobats death in 1759. Nowadays the performer is simply lowered using a harness, much safer than a pole!

Next is the water parade on the Grand Canal. Many Venetians move along the water on their boats heading to the Cannaregio district. This site pairs nicely with the nearby Venetian street food and is my choice for the best thing to take part in during the carnival. What’s the first reason? I love food! The second? The parade is free, and when you think about how expensive tickets to the ball can be, you value the free things! Thirdly, it is because the parade looks fantastic.

The boats and party-goers moving along the river look fascinating. It is hectic, packed with small boats and as tradition dictates, a giant rat statue on one of the gondolas. Originally, the rat was thrown over the side of a bridge tied to a rope which was a way of poking fun of the flight of the angel. You will see dancers, terrifying looking masks and some crazy costumes of traffic wardens, religious figures, and even Pokemon! There is also a beauty contest during which traditionally, the Doge would award the winner a prize of fantastic jewelry. 

Venice carnival costume



The Venice Carnival is a massive parade of costumes but you’ll have to save up your pocket money to afford one! Some of the more expensive Venice carnival costumes will cost you around €1500 while the mask can cost around €20-60. So there’s no shame in only getting the mask! You aren’t obliged to get a mask though. It’s perfectly acceptable to wear whatever you’re comfy in, just stand back and enjoy the show!

Venice carnival 2019 dates


This year, the Venice carnival will take place from Saturday, February 16 until Tuesday, March 5th. There aren’t specific tickets to enter the carnival, its free, but some events like the masquerade ball require a ticket. More on that a little later!

Venice carnival masquerade balls



As you can tell from the fanciful outfits in photographs and videos, the masquerade balls are extremely ostentatious affairs! There are different balls located throughout the city with varying themes, live performances, and food.

The balls are full of party-goers with masks, big costumes, and even bigger wigs. Live performances from musicians, fire-breathers and dancers make for an evening completely unlike anything from your usual Saturday night.

While entrance to the carnival is free, admission to the balls most certainly isn’t! Tickets can range from €80-€800 depending on which ball you want to join. The Glass Slippers Masquerade Ball, for example, is on the cheaper end of the balls whereas you’ll have to save your pocket money to afford €800 tickets to the Il Ballo del Doge!

But what about the masks? They’re surely the most famous part of the carnival right? Yep, for many, the costumes, particularly the masks, are the most important part! So let’s take a look!

Venice carnival masks



Mask wearing is a huge part of the Venice carnival. Masks were used by gamblers and prostitutes seeking anonymity and as such, were banned in Venice for a time. There are a few traditional types of masks to choose from, and we’ll take a look at these next. This section will be especially useful if you’re a first timer to the Venice carnival. So take a look so you can walk into the carnival/ball feeling confident that your outfit is on point!

Which type of mask should I wear to the Venice carnival?


There are many different types of masks you can choose from, but I won’t go into too much detail. Instead, we’ll take a quick look at the origins and characteristics, so you can pick your favorite but also, learn a little about the history and meaning behind each of the Venice carnival masks.

Bauta



A pale face with a prominent nose and chin, the Bauta is designed for functionality, possibly explaining its popularity. The prominent chin enables the wearer to talk and eat comfortably with the mask on.

Colombina


The Colombina offers slightly less anonymity than other masks as it’s a half-mask covering the upper part of your face. The Colombina is the mask that is often seen in adverts involving masquerade balls, usually advertising perfume or deodorant.

Medico Della Peste (The Plague Doctor)


The most recognizable of the masks, with the long beak giving the wearer an appearance of a large bird. It has even made its way onto the popular show ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.’ What originally started as a mask to prevent doctors from catching the Plague, has become synonymous with promiscuous parties.

Moretta/Servetta muta


Moretta is a strange one indeed, a small circular black mask that comes without a strap. This means the wearer has to bite a button to keep the mask in place rendering the user mute. Hence the etymology of part of the name, ‘muta’. The physical restrictions that come with this mask, however, make it an unpopular choice.

Zanni


The Zanni continues the theme of prominent noses in Venetian masks. Another half-mask with stern looking eyebrows and a long nose that curves away from the mouth. Could it be that mask makers (known as Mascherari) agree with Sherlock Holmes’ opinion that prominent people have prominent noses? Nope! Not once you learn about the meaning of the design! The long nose signifies a sign of stupidity, the longer the nose, the more stupid the character.

Volto


The Volto mask will almost certainly make you think of Sons of the Harpy from Game of Thrones. Unlike a Bauta, the Volto is not the mask for you if you get claustrophobic or want to eat! This is because the lips are sealed together meaning you cannot eat while wearing the mask. It is also the tightest fitting of the masks and is designed to cover the entirety of the wearers face.

Pantalone


The Pantalone is similar to the Medico della Peste, but with a much less prominent nose. It is one of the more creepy masks due to the cruel looking face and sharp nose. The eyebrows and nose, in particular, evoke feelings of trepidation due to similarities to stereotypical depictions of witches in literature.

Arlecchino


Arlecchino has one of the more interesting meanings behind the mask (if you’ll pardon the pun). He is a kind of noble savage, devoid of reason and full of emotion. A peasant/slave with a half-mask that has a protuberance on the forehead signifying the devil’s horn. This character is often portrayed on stage as the servant to Pantalone in the play, Commedia dell’arte. Maybe this could be the inspiration for masks for you and your close ally?

There is a competition to judge the best, most beautiful mask each day of the carnival. Now that you know the different types, are you going to enter and be the star of the show?

What else is there to do at the Venice carnival 2019?



If the outrageous and at times pretentious ball isn’t for you, don’t worry, there is plenty more to do! There is the masquerade pub crawl. This could be perfect for anyone a little bit unsure of what to expect from the carnival and will be sure to get you into the spirit! You will have to book in advance and get yourself a mask for the crawl. Maybe the Arlecchino would be a good choice so that nothing gets between your lips and your drink!

You aren’t obliged to take part and can just enjoy the show if you’re less extroverted than many party-goers! The street performances are perfect for this, with interesting parades all over the city. The hotspot for parades is St. Mark’s Square. Crowds gather to watch the performers in their outlandish costumes. St. Mark’s is also the spot to watch the opening of the carnival, the ‘flight of the angel’. There is also the international kid's carnival, Burano’s carnival and more. Up to three million visitors will descend on the city for the Venice carnival 2019, will you be joining them at this great Italian festival?

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