Every year, up to 3 million people descend on Venice to partake in the festivities surrounding Carnival (Carnevale in Italian). And though Carnival, also known as Mardi Gras, is celebrated around the world, it has a unique flavor in Venice, transporting participants back in time to the 1700s.
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to sweep across northern Italy, Venice Carnival was canceled. In 2021, it was virtual. The festivities returned in 2022 and will be back in full force in 2023, though the details are still being finalized. Whether you’re planning a trip to Venice to experience this magical celebration or just daydreaming about it, here’s everything you need to know about Venice Carnival.
The origins of Venice Carnival
The exact origins of Venice Carnival are unknown, but what’s certain is that the tradition has existed for at least a millennium. The first recorded mention of Carnival dates back to 1092, but it wasn’t until 1296 that the senate of the Venetian Republic declared it a public festival. Although Carnival is widely accepted to be a Christian holiday preceding Lent, some scholars believe that its roots can be traced all the way back to the pagan traditions of ancient Rome.
“The Venice Carnival was initially a way for the plebeians to let off steam,” says Fulvio De Bonis, cofounder of luxury tour operator Imago Artis Travel, who has attended Venice Carnival and organizes exclusive experiences at the festival for his clients. “It was the festival that let the commoners elevate themselves and allowed the patricians to descend to the level of the plebeians, so it was a leveling of the social classes.”
When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, he abolished Carnival in order to prevent rebellions. It took nearly 200 years to bring it back.
When is Venice’s 2023 Carnival?
Venice Carnival starts on February 4, 2023, and culminates on Fat Tuesday, which falls on February 21, 2023.
How long does it last?
It’s marked by several big parades and events, starting with the Festa sull’Acqua (Party on the Water), during which a parade of elaborately decorated boats will sail down the Canal of Canareggio after dark. The next major parade will be the Festa delle Marie, which sees 12 beautiful women in period clothes parade from the Basilica di San Pietro to Piazza San Marco. This tradition dates back to the 9th century, when Venice’s wealthiest families offered beautiful clothes, jewels, and a bridal dowry to 12 beautiful but poor Venetian young women. Of the 12 Maries, one is selected as the winner who flies down the bell tower of the Basilica di San Marco for an event called Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel).
How to attend Carnival in Venice
Aside from the big public events, there are dozens of concerts, feasts, and opulent masquerade balls in the city’s most lavish palazzos. “The most important is the Ballo del Doge hosted by Antonia Sautter,” De Bonis says, comparing the vibe to Eyes Wide Shut without the naked women. “Everyone wants to get into this ball. It’s the event of the year. It’s very difficult to get tickets.”
The best way to find out about and get into the most exclusive balls is through a tour operator like Imago Artis or your hotel’s concierge. “In order to preserve a sense of tranquility for our guests, we don’t organize parties at the hotel, but I am personally available, along with our concierge team, to advise guests about the best balls and parties in the city,” says Paolo Lorenzoni, general manager of the Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, adding that guests can taste traditional Carnival sweets prepared by the hotel’s pastry chef.
Aside from having the right connections, you’ll need deep pockets to get into the most exclusive balls, which can cost upwards of $800 to attend—excluding the cost of a costume rental, which can also cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
What to wear to Carnival
You’ll certainly see people wearing normal clothes at the public parades, but part of the fun of Carnival is dressing up in 18th-century costumes and beautiful masks. People really love to go all out, donning spectacular ballgowns or suits adorned with feathers, beads, and trim, made of sumptuous fabrics like velvet or satin.
“The whole city transforms into an open-air theater and there are experiences, like enjoying a hot chocolate at Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco wearing a Carnival costume and surrounded by masks, that are hard to forget!” Lorenzoni says.
Masks are sold in hundreds of shops all over the city, but for the best-quality masks handmade by true Venetian artisans, De Bonis recommends Sogno Veneziano Atelier and La Bottega dei Mascareri. Both make elaborate masks inspired by the Commedia dell’Arte. A couple of the most common archetypes are Bauta, which covers most of the face but leaves the mouth exposed so the wearer can eat and drink without removing it, and la Moretta, an oval mask covered in black velvet that was reserved for women, who would have to secure it by clenching a button between their teeth, preventing them from talking.
Is it worth it?
“It’s true that it’s chaotic. You can’t move through the streets, you’re squeezed amid all the people, but the beautiful thing is going to a ball,” De Bonis says, though he believes that yes, it’s worth doing once in your life.
Lorenzoni agrees. “Carnival is decisively the most magical period of the year,” he says. “Strolling the narrow streets running into the various masks almost lets you travel back in time and admire the extraordinary costumes with their sartorial craftsmanship that are created specifically for this celebration.”