Tuesday, 22 January 2013 9:04 PM
If you're planning a trip to the beautiful floating city of Venice, you might want to visit when the metropolis is at its most colourful and vibrant – during Carnevale. Hire a boat during February and you'll be able to witness one of the city's main events.
Also sometimes referred to as mardi gras, Carnevale is celebrated all over Italy, and the festivities in Venice are unmissable. Grand masked balls, street parades, live music and a general party atmosphere descend on the city during the run-up to Easter. Keep reading to find out more.
A brief history
The annual festival – which is held over the ten days before Shrove Tuesday – is believed to have its roots in medieval times, when Venice celebrated a victory against the ancient Roman city of Aquileia. Much rejoicing took place in light of the victory, with people congregating at St Mark's Square to celebrate. The festival then became tradition until the 18th century, when its popularity declined.
In the late 1900s, Carnevale returned to Venice as a means of celebrating the city's rich history and culture. The event – which attracts millions of visitors each year, including international fashion and costume designers – centres on masks, which many of the attendees wear, and contests are held to decide whose is the best.
Dressing up is the main attraction for many people attending Carnevale, and Venetian shops offer costume hire services for the period, so you'll easily be able to find some suitable attire if you want to join in the festivities. The masks are the most important feature of Carnevale costumes, and you can browse vast selections if you call in at shops like Ca' Macana or Il Canovaccio.
There are all sorts of styles of mask to choose from across a range of categories, including the following:
Bauta – This type of mask covers the whole face and is often tilted up at the bottom to allow the wearer to eat and drink easily. Bauta masks were traditionally worn with a red cape and a three-cornered hat. In the 1700s, the mask formed part of a disguise regulated by the government and was used to ensure anonymity of civilians in ballots.
Medico della Peste – Also known as the Plague Doctor, is a style of mask thought to have first been worn by French doctor Charles de Lorme, who used it as a precaution when treating plague victims. The mask has a long beak and rounded eye holes covered with disks of crystal and is commonly worn with a black cloak and matching hat.
Columbina – These half masks are often adorned with feathers and decorated with semi-precious gems. Columbina masks can be held up to the face with a baton or tied behind the head with a ribbon.
Volto – Also known as Larva, Volto masks are mainly white and made from a wax cloth, making them light and easy to wear. They cover the whole face and the name larva is thought to be derived from the Latin for ghost or mask. Volto masks tend to be worn with a cloak and a three-cornered hat, called a tricorn.
As well as private events, there are many public balls to attend during Carnevale. The parties are all different and vary greatly in price. If you're willing to splash your cash, you can tuck into four-course banquets and enjoy an evening of entertainment, often including orchestral performances, magicians' acts and acrobatics displays.
Local cafes and restaurants also hold smaller scale balls, which tend to be much cheaper than their elaborate alternatives, so don your costume and enjoy a more informal affair with cakes and pastries. To find out more about the balls being organised and book a ticket in advance, it's a good idea to take a look at the city's official tourism website.
Venice really gets into the party spirit during Carnevale, and you can expect to be kept entertained during your visit. Organised events take place each day, while musicians showcase their skills live at the city's main squares.
St Mark's Square becomes a real hub of activity for the duration of the festival, as this is where the majority of masked parades are held, and special gondola processions and boat parades are organised along the Grand Canal.
If you're travelling with youngsters, be sure to visit the Cannaregio district, which holds a special carnival for children, and if you stay until the end of the festival you'll be able to enjoy the culmination – an impressive fireworks show on the last day of Carnevale.