In stark contrast to Carnival festivities in Rio, New Orleans and elsewhere, the Carnival of Venice, like the city that hosts it, is as much a period piece as it is a hedonistic celebration. Banned in the late 18th century and resurrected by the Italian government in the 1970s as part of its attempt to promote Venetian culture, Carnival (called Carnevale in Italian) centers on the profusion of masks worn by the city’s residents and the tens of thousands of visitors who attend the annual festival.
The dates for Carnival change every year, as they’re connected to the liturgical year rather than the calendar year, and the celebration does take place just before Lent and culminates on Fat Tuesday, Martedi Grasso in Italian. In 2015, Carnevale takes place January 31 through February 17.
Costumes, Street Theater & Feasting
While Carnival in Venice may have been more wild centuries ago, the modern version is much more stately. Still, it’s an invitation for participants to express themselves through elaborate costumes and masks, and it’s a festival known for its sensual overtones. Carnival is, in many ways, about excess.
Acting troupes and performers engage in various forms of “commedia dell'arte," or improvised performances of theater, juggling and comedy, and there's also the epic proportions of traditional Venetian food and wine that are consumed.
Venetian Carnival Masks
Whenever you choose to join in the festivities, you’ll first have to choose a mask. Throughout the festival, revelers conceal their identities with various styles of the fashionable face covers, while some historians believe masks were originally used during Carnival to erase the lines between classes in a very class-driven society, allowing people from all walks of life to mingle in a way that was impossible at any other time of year. Today, the masks are simply a festive part of any good Carnival costume.
One type of mask is the Bautas, which was once only worn by men. Usually gilded with a pronounced chin line that doesn't conceal the mouth, these masks can be worn by anyone today. A Columbina mask covers half the face, exposing the mouth and lower part of the face. Morettas, oval masks made of velvet, are typically worn by women.
The standard Venetian Carnival masks, however, are Voltos or Larvas, often simple, white and unadorned. They cover the entire face, and the mouths on them are always closed and slightly pursed.