The modern Venetian Carnival runs up until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (known as “Mardi Gras”), starting two Saturdays before the Tuesday. In recent years, the official Carnival organisers have started to add a prior weekend, which we see as quasi-official – it’s not within the traditional dates, but there’s plenty going on. Venice carnival dates therefore vary in step with Easter as follows:
- Venice Carnival 2016 dates:
January 23-24 (add-on weekend, quasi-official), January 30 – February 9 (official)
- Venice Carnival 2017 dates:
February 11-12 (add-on weekend, quasi-official), February 18-28 (official)
- Venice Carnival 2018 dates:
January 27-28 (add-on weekend, quasi-official), February 3-13 (official)
- Venice Carnival 2019 dates:
February 16-17 (add-on weekend, quasi-official), February 23-March 6 (official)
- Venice Carnival 2020 dates:
February 8-9 (add-on weekend, quasi-official), February 15-25 (official)
Carnevale di Venezia events
The official Carnival site is part of the Municipality of Venice website – click on “English”, then “Program”. Many event organisers also gradually add their events throughout the year to the private Carnival of Venice website, so it’s worth checking both.
Venice Carnival in history
The word carnival comes from the Latin for “Farewell, meat!”. As Lent (which begins on Ash Wednesday) obliged people to fast, during the period up to Ash Wednesday all meat, butter and eggs had to be used up. This religious formality became the excuse for a party that echoed pagan festivities. In late Rome Saturnalia and Lupercalia were moments when licentiousness and wantonry were celebrated – a deliberate upturning of the usual social order. Christianity licensed a comparable period of celebration from Twelfth Night until the midnight of Shrove Tuesday. Popes Clement IX and XI and Benedict XIII were among those who tried hardest to bring Carnival back within proper religious limits, but they didn’t have much influence over Venice.
The history of the Venice Carnival tradition began after 1162. The Republic defeated Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia in that year, and began a tradition of slaughtering a bull and 12 pigs in the Piazza San Marco around Shrove Tuesday to commemorate the victory. This celebration gradually grew and 1268 dates the first document mentioning the use of masks.
History of Venice Carnival – the 18th Century
The eighteenth century was the heyday of Carnival. Venice’s decline in power was accompanied by a conspicuous consumption of pleasure. Rich young nobles doing the European “Grand Tour” made sure these pleasures were theirs as well. The paintings of Francesco Guardi and his contemporaries, and the diaries of Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) are the best-known symbols of the age – the languid spirit of carnival an ever-present implication.
History of Venice Carnival – Retirement and revival
Carnival’s significance declined gradually through to the 1930s, when Mussolini banned it. In 1979, a group of Venetians and lovers of Venice decided to revive the tradition. Within a few years, the image of the masked reveller had become a worldwide icon of Venice in winter.
Venice Carnival masks
Masks made the Venetian Carnival unique. If you cannot identify the wearer of the mask, you do not know his social status. In this way, Venice temporarily overturned her social order. Some of the masks depicted Commedia dell’Arte characters. Others were more sinister. The white-beaked mask so famous from photographs is that of the plague-doctor; the beak echoes a doctor’s long breathing apparatus that held a sponge doused in vinegar, thought to hold the plague at bay. The Doges were frequently exercised by the dangers masks allowed, and passed laws limiting their use to within the carnival period; if you wore a mask at any other time of year, penalties were severe.
Masks are a big cottage industry in today’s Venice, and sold all year round. If you are looking for a mask for carnival, one of the better mask shops is Carta Alta – their website not only gives you a catalogue of masks for sale, but flash movies showing how the masks are made.
We offer three great Venice rental properties with excellent central heating available in January, February and March – perfect for Carnival. All three of our properties are highly rated on Tripadvisor, and we have years of experience in offering a great service to visitors.
For a lively account of Carnival 2012 with pictures, see our blog for “Wizzy” Pollitt’s carnival musings. For a still different account, see the column on the right.