This article may contain compensated links. See our full disclosure here
It’s Carnevale time in Venice! This annual spectacle and celebration is one of the most spectacular festivals in the world. Carnevale is somewhat similar to Mardi Gras in the United State and it is celebrated throughout Italy – with costumes, parades, feasting and general partying. But no-one does it better than Venice!
We talk to Venetian and tour guide Elisabetta Amadi, whose family goes back many generations in Venice, about the tradition of the amazing Carnevale di Venezia – from the masks, to the food and to the flying angels and rats, and rowing witches you’ll meet along the way.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Carnevale dates back a long, long time. The Doge Vitale Falier first mentioned Carnevale in a document back in the year 1094. So around 1000 years ago. 200 years later, in 1296, we have the very first properly recorded celebration that has to do with Carnevale in Venice
- The peak of the celebration is around Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday) perhaps more recognizable as Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday
- Legend has it that etymologically speaking, the word Carnevale might come from the word “carne vale”, which means farewell to meat. So during lent when you would give up meat – it was a time to kind of overindulge before lent.
- The roots of Carnevale are quite uncertain and could be connected to quite a lot of different things – from the Greek celebration of Dionysus, which was known as Bacchanalia, to the variety of pagan celebrations of the arrival of spring
- In Venice around the 1300s, people started to seriously celebrate Carnevale. In the very beginning, with very simple masks and one of the things that started to happen was having men dressed as ladies. By the 15/1600s, masks have taken over and Carnevale – the season would start from 26 December, and it would go all the way to lent – so an extremely long time celebrating!!
- From around 1500 there were the bridge battles which were serious fights but were all part of the entertainment. Venice was divided in two main rival fractions – the Castellani and Nicolotti. The battles took place on the bridges as it was literally the border of these two rivalry groups
- Venice is a big group of 118 islands and most of them are connected with bridges and usually, for each island they were quite independent entities. So for each island, you’d have a small little center – usually marked by a Campo which is a Piazza/a square and for each Campo you would then have a Church and a Belltower (extremely important!) There is only one Piazza in Venice and that’s Piazza San Marco, the rest of the squares are Campos
- During Carnevale, the Campos are alive day and night. Every campo would have a different theater group – there would be people performances of all kinds, dances, regattas, comedies, and concerts
- Back in the 1300s, they started to have some Turk acrobats performing the Flight of the Turk, descending down on a rope. Things have changed and they no longer have the Turkish acrobat but have a different dancer every year and the rope nowadays goes all the way from the very high Belltower to the Palazzo Ducale/the Doges Palace. Nowadays this is known as the Flight of the Angels
- The Venetians were historically into gambling big time. To be able to gamble, they would open up gambling houses in their own houses, and this was where you would find people wearing the masks at first.
- Masks were these great equalizers – rich, poor, super-poor, super-rich, casino owners, patrons or peasants, and nobles – everyone could dress up. So everyone goes down to the same level or up to the same level. The masks also were not really considered a luxury item. Masks were worn in the small casinos as well as in cafes, state ceremonies, receptions, and they were only forbidden during lent and the ten days also prior to Christmas
- The Caffe Florian is the first coffee house to open in Europe in the 1700s and the inside remains to this day as it was then – full of colorful decoration, lots of mirrors, and lots of these beautiful masks
- Carnevale is a time for wearing masks, wigs, and generally dressing up. For born and bred Venetians – it’s not unexpected or unusual for them to go into the local patisserie or newsagent shop and find the guy behind the desk dressed up as a pirate
- An incredible ball is thrown every year by Venetian Atelier Antonia Sautter – Il Ballo del Doge. Held in a historic palazzo, it is arguably the fanciest of all the balls of Carnevale
- All across the various Campi in the city – San, Marco, San Polo, Campo Santo Stefano, Campo Santa Margherita, San Giacomo dell Orio there are things happening pretty much all the time during Carnevale – theatre performances, concerts, skating rinks. There are face painters painting masks on the children – dressing up and wearing wigs is a fun way to join in
- The Saturday prior to Shrove Tuesday and then Tuesday itself are the busiest times. It gets so busy that some streets get closed off and the police have to direct the traffic.
- In the northern Cannaregio district, there is an evening in competition and contrast to the Flight of the Angel, the Svolo della Pantegana (flight of the Rat). They have a giant, fake rat on a big barge that is carried through a canal next to the old area of the Jewish ghetto. They have fireworks on the canal around this big raft and all the people are usually on their boats on the canal. This attracts a big crowd so is tricky in covid times, but it’s hoped it will be back again 2023!
- On 6th January we have the Regatta of Befana where members of the oldest rowing club of Venice, the Bucintoro, dressed up as Befana – the old witches, race from S. Tomà to the Rialto Bridge. The finish line consists of a giant sock hanging from the Rialto Bridge
- In normal times, despite the chill of February, Carnevale is peak season in Venice and it gets booked out quickly so it’s worth planning your trip well in advance
- Ca ‘Macana are mask-makers extraordinaire and you can buy their masks as special souvenirs as well as do mask-making workshops there. You can check out their incredible pieces and watch the fun on their Instagram account. Their workshops are a great activity if visiting Venice with kids too.
- The exquisite artisan masks take a long time and a lot of skill and intricacy to create and therefore come at a cost. If you’re buying a €10 mask, this will be something mass-produced and most certainly not an artisan product
- There are different kinds of masks with different meanings. Perhaps the oldest and most well know is the Bauta. The Bauta was originally simple stark white, though nowadays you get very fancy, gilded ones. This was designed to comfortably cover the entire face and features traditionally an over-prominent nose, a thick supraorbital ridge, a projecting chin line, and no mouth. Quite grotesque but the mask was designed to enable the wearer to talk, eat, and drink without having to remove it, and also distorting the voice – thereby preserving the wearer’s anonymity. The bauta was often accompanied by a red or black hooded cape and a three-cornered (tricorn) hat. It was originally only worn by men but women started to also wear them in the 1800s.
- Another popular and strange mask is the one known as both Moretta meaning dark one or Servetta Muta, meaning mute servant woman. This was a women’s mask – a strapless black velvet oval mask with wide eyeholes and no lips or mouth and held in place by the wearer biting on a button or bit (the wearer was unable to speak, hence muta). It was often finished off with a veil
- Last and by no means least creepy – the Medico Della Peste (The Plague Doctor) mask, is a very well-known Venetian mask, but it didn’t start out as a Carnevale mask but as the name suggests – as a method of preventing the spread of disease – the PPE of the Venetian doctors during the 16th-century plague. The mask is often white, with a hollow beak ( this could be stuffed with flowers and other sweet-smelling substances designed to keep away the foul odors that were thought to spread infection) and round eyeholes covered with crystal discs
- Celebrate Carnevale with some of the traditional sweet treats such as Frittelle (Venetian doughnuts), Galani (like super-thin cookie/biscuit ribbons), and Castagnole (deep-fried dumplings with a hard biscuit/cookie-like texture)
About our guest – Elisabetta Amadi
Elisabetta is a city guide for Venice, who can trace her family history back over 500 years in the city. With Elisabetta you can explore the best that Venice and the Veneto region has to offer. She tells you stories that have been handed down from generations in her family about the most famous and not-so-famous personalities of Venice. Elisabetta studied in the canal city and then travelled to many different countries and explored Italy inside out but in the end Venice won. She decided this was the city to come back to and she’s worked in tourism since 1995 and is still extremely excited to lead tours in her city.
Many clients book her for their first full day in Venice, whether arriving by cruise ship, flying in for a short stay, or visiting as part of a wider tour around the country. They then get to see the best that Venice has to offer and walk away with confidence on how to find their way around the city independently for the rest of their stay. They do this armed with step-by-step instructions and recommendations from Elisabetta, a sixth generation Venetian!
She does tours throughout the region, including Padova, Verona, and Treviso – all manageable single-day trips from Venice. Elisabetta can help design your tour to be tailor-made to your specifications- for example, a tour of Venice that includes the Doges Palace and Basilica of Saint Mark with a Bacari tour (wine and finger food) – all in one day? The possibilities are endless.
You can find Elisabetta on these channels:
Places mentioned in the show
- Campo Santo Stefano – a city square near the Ponte dell’Accademia
- Piazza San Marco – St Marks Square – the most famous square in Venice, if not Italy
- Ridotto – meaning “The Private Room”. It was a wing of Venice’s Palazzo Dandolo. In 1638, it was converted at the behest of Venice’s city leaders into a government-owned gambling house
- Caffe Florian – famous and stunning historic cafe in Piazza San Marco
- Antonia Sautter – atelier found in the center of Venice. She throws an incredible ball during Carnevale called Il Ballo del Doge
- Campo San Polo – the largest campo in Venice, Italy, the second-largest Venetian public square after the Piazza San Marco
- Campo Santa Margherita – city square located near the University in Venice
- San Giacomo dell Orio – church and campo in Santa Croce
- Cannaregio – the northernmost of the six historic sestieri (districts) of Venice
- Ca’macana – mask makers where you can buy masks as well as do workshops
Food mentioned in the show
- Frittelle – or fritole are Venetian doughnuts served only during Carnival
- Galani – strips of very very thin pasta ribbons, long or short, deep fried
- Castagnole – deep fried dumplings – hard like biscuits
- Carnevale Official site – this site will have all the details you’ll need for a trip to Venice during Carnevale
- Carnevale Instagram – see fantastic images of the celebrations and costumes in all their glory
- Doge of Venice – derived from Latin dūx, “military leader” and sometimes translated as Duke (the Italian Duca) – he was the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice between 726 and 1797
- Vitale_Faliero/Vitale Falier – the 32nd Doge of Venice from 1084 until his death in 1095
- Martedi Grasso – known in other countries as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, refers to events of the Carnival celebration, beginning on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is known as Shrove Tuesday
- Bacchanalia – Greek celebration
- campi – city squares in Venice
- Castellani and Nicolotti – the two rival factions of the working class of Venice who would be identified by their colors – the Nicolotti wore black caps and scarves and the Castellani wore red
- Commedia dell’arte – (comedy of the profession) an early form of professional theatre, originating in Italy, that was popular throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries
- Carlo Goldoni – Italian playwright of the 1700s
- Svolo della Pantegana (flight of the Rat) – a fun event where a giant paper mache rat is setup on a huge boat in the north of the city
- Befana – a popular tradition dating back to pre-Christian traditions – the Befana brings gifts on the night between 5 and 6 January, flying in on a broom carrying a bag full of toys and sweets. She slides down the chimneys of the houses and fills the stockings left hanging by the children
- Bauta – today often heavily gilded though originally simple stark white, which is designed to comfortably cover the entire face
- Moretta/Servetta muta – The moretta (meaning dark one) or servetta muta (meaning mute servant woman) was a small strapless black velvet oval mask with eyeholes and no lips/mouth worn by women
- Medico Della Peste (The Plague Doctor) – the plague doctor mask with its long beak, is well known as a Venetian mask. Originating from 17th-century French physician Charles de Lorme who adopted the mask while treating plague victims
Resources from Untold Italy
- Learn more about Venice in our district guide for where to stay, our 3 day itinerary for Venice, Hidden Gems in Venice, options for day trips from Venice, our guide to the best hotels and more on the region in our Veneto guide
- Our Airbnb picks in Venice – including some with incredible views of the Grand Canal
- Listen: to Elisabetta’s other episode on the history of the Venetian gondola Episode #087 The story of the Venetian Gondola, and more on Venice in Episode #048: Venice districts – best places to stay for your trip, Episode 10: Venice highlights and Episode 37: Secrets of Venice
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.