Venice Carnival

February 16-March 5, 2019

After experiencing the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Carnival in Rio, and the Carnival in Mazatlan, I had to be at the mother of them all carnivals, the Carnival of Venice. I had expected a super party like Rio and I was at St Marks square in the evening on February 27th, a Wednesday on the second week of the festival and there was hardly anyone attending the live music concert on the main stage at 11 pm. It was supposed to last until midnight. I was underwhelmed and having just arrived that afternoon I decided to go back to my spartan cloister accommodation at Casa Caburlotto in Santa Croce and call it a day. It seemed I planned this poorly, and missed the most interesting events of the festival, judging incorrectly that the big bang will be on the final day, Fat Tuesday. In subsequent days I realized that the Venice carnival is a very unique event and has nothing shared in common with the other carnivals except its modern dates of celebration associated with Lent.

The centerpiece of the carnival is the wearing of masks which has a tradition dating back to the 12th century. In those times, masks were worn at any time from December until Mardi gras to hide one’s identity and engage in illicit or clandestine behavior without public censure regardless of sex, social or marital status. Commonly it was used to conduct clandestine romances and sexual liaisons, to cross social class barriers, or to avoid censure for gambling and drunken behaviors. In the 16th century the carnival was most popular but it declined after the fall of the republic, and was prohibited entirely in the 18th century. It was revived in 1979 to boost tourism. It gradually regained popularity, and now is the biggest festival in the city and celebrated events unique to its history. It started the Saturday before my arrival with what I was told was a spectacular evening water parade on the Cannaregio canal, with dramatic lighted floats of acrobatic, dance and musical performers around the festival theme of Blame the Moon, for the 50th year anniversary of the moon landing, followed on Sunday noon by the Festa delle Marie, a parade and reenactment of the rescue of twelve maidens abducted by pirates during their mass wedding, by the Doge and the feasting after their victory and Sunday night the breathtaking Flight of the Angel from the bell tower of San Marco to the festival stage in the square. Since I missed witnessing these events, it will be a good excuse to return and do the festival again, this time with friends in order to enjoy the full gaiety of the festival. The highlight is the dressing up in costumes and wearing masks and posing in strategic places to attract passersby and take your photo, and if you are really into it, enter the competition for best mask/costume. The top prize is two tickets at $600 each, to the Grand Festival Ball at the Ca Vendramin Calergi Palace overlooking the Grand Canal. There were as many Italians as foreign tourists in attendance, one had been coming for the last 22 years, another 18 years. There was a group of ten mature women from Russia, who came costumed in Russian 18th century fashion, which they designed and sewed themselves. Many spent time planning and making their costumes and masks, in rich fabrics and adorned with jewels, ribbons, feathers, fur, opulent and elaborate and oh so breathtakingly beautiful and creative. Many came with several costumes and would display a different one in their daily individual parade at Saint Mark Square. I felt shabby in my cheap Amazon ordered outfit, but it became magical with the mask I found from a sidewalk vendor, cheaply made from China, but the perfect foil for my transformation. I must have looked fabulous from the many photos I attracted while on my way to the Minuet Ball at the Ridotto at the Monaco hotel. It is a must go to event for a full carnival experience, to buy one of these expensive tickets to the costume dinner/balls, held in various sumptuous former palaces, costing from Eu300- Eu600 each.
One could get a feel of the magic by hanging out at San Marco mostly with the tourists but for the full carnival experience with the locals one must go see the parade at Lido or Marghera and the street performers at Mestre, the last two on Venezia’s terra firma accessible by bus only. There the festival is attended by families with young children who came in costumes and walked in the parade and came out of formation to wave at their parents or adults getting off their group to hug acquaintances they see from the crowd. It is informal and unpretentious and has a charming small town feel. And after all these you can wander at the various neighborhoods and small squares, sit at a cafe with cappuccino and a fritella and be startled by costumed persons suddenly appearing at the next table or as you go around corners or alleys, to remind you that it is the carnival season. Contrary to how the carnivale began with masks to enable one to engage in naughty behaviors, there is no loud partying or rowdiness, but elegance and cultural respect predominated.

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