Carnevale Travel GuideIntroduction
Many people probably wouldn’t associate Italy’s famous Carnevale with the winter holidays, but the truth is that it is actually one of the major events that are held during the cold season as it usually falls around February or March. It is a farewell to winter as well as one big, final party before the somber days of Lent set in. The Carnevale season begins 40 days before Easter, and ends on Shrove Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday, though festivities can start rolling in as early as two weeks prior.
The Carnevale can trace its roots back to the Roman pagan ritual of Saturnalia, during which there were communal banquets, and when slaves dined with their masters, gambled together (gambling was heavily frowned upon at the time), and spoke to them as equals. Sometimes, the roles were even reversed where the masters would serve food to the slaves.
Later on, Christianity adapted the pagan holiday to fit the religious calendar. There was also a practical purpose to this as it was considered as the perfect time to feast on the surplus of meat that was stored during the winter… meat, which is a food item that is forbidden during Lent. This is also how the holiday got its name, as “Carnevale” in Latin is literally translated as “goodbye meat.”
It remained a highly popular event from the 1100s, though the Renaissance, and all the way to the 1700s with each century seeing it get more lavish and more decadent as people ate, drank, reveled, voiced their opinions freely. They also participated in all sorts of light mischief during the duration of the event, thanks to the fact that everyone wore masks.
A crucial element of any Carnevale celebration would be the masks, as the anonymity it granted encouraged the people wearing it to act more freely, and simply let loose and enjoy themselves, all as equals and with no regard for social status or fame. This gave birth to the saying, “A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale,” or “anything goes at carnival.”
Unfortunately, the holiday was banned in 1798 when Austria took control of Venice, and again in the 1930s during the fascist regime. It wasn’t reinstated until the 1980s when it was welcomed back by the people, and it saw a full revival.
What to See
As mentioned previously, the Carnevale is a huge winter festival that everyone can participate in. Expect there to be:
- Live music
- People simply walking around in costume all over the city
- Costume pageants at Piazza San Marco
- Masquerade balls (both private and public)
- A mini-Carnevale for children
- Fireworks, particularly on the evening of Shrove Tuesday, there will be a grand fireworks show to mark the end of the celebration.
- A lot of food and drink, as well as seasonal treats made especially for the occasion
While there are many free, public shows and sights to see, there are also private functions that you can join for a fee. There will also most definitely be a lot of people, and it is not uncommon for complete strangers to play pranks on each other, all in the spirit of the holiday.
To participate, just simply hop in! Remember that the point of the Carnevale is for people to be able to interact and have fun freely, so don’t be afraid to dive into the whole thing and enjoy the various shows and events.
If you really want to immerse yourself in it, though, feel free to dress up and wear a mask yourself, and you’ll blend right in. There will be many vendors selling a plethora of masks, and their wares can range anywhere from cheap (but pretty!) plastic ones that sell for a few euros, to custom-made pieces from local mask-makers that can cost up to around EUR 200.
There will also be establishments and hotels that hold private masquerade balls, and they can provide you with a mask and even a custom-made costume to wear at the event. Just note, however, that this option can come with a hefty price tag of up to EUR 500 or thereabouts, but for those who want to experience the grandeur and opulence of the Carnevale, the price is well worth it.
Tips and Advice
- If you plan to catch it, take note that because it follows the calendar of church celebrations, the exact date of the Carnevale varies every year. This means that in 2015, it will be on February 17, so best to start planning around it if you want to participate!
- Because of the popularity of the event, you should also expect hotels and accommodations to be fully-booked and/or slightly overpriced, so book your hotel well in advance.
- Though we often associate the Carnevale with just Venice, many cities and towns actually celebrate this holiday, each with their own unique twists and highlights. However, the biggest and most elaborate parties are at Venice, Viareggio, and Cento, so if you would like to join a bigger crowd, head to these cities.