Venice Carnival has been canceled due to the worldwide pandemic, but you can experience it vicariously through my favorite photos from this colorful Italian celebration.
Typically, people wear masks during Venice Carnival to celebrate an annual tradition of lavish parties and parades in the ancient Italian city of Venice.
This year, everyone is still wearing masks, but for a different reason.
Italy’s Carnevale di Venezia would have started this week, if it weren’t for the devastating worldwide pandemic. Last year, Carnival was canceled after only 3-days, as the severity of COVID-19 began to emerge.
During the last full Carnival celebration back in 2019 (which feels so long ago!), while living in Italy, my wife Anna & I hopped on a train from Verona to check out this famous Venice festival for a few days in February.
Below you’ll find a collection of my best pictures from Venice Carnival, if you’d like to get a glimpse of what the festival is like!
Hopefully it will give you a little travel inspiration for when it’s safe to jump on a plane to Italy again in the future.
1. History Of Venice Carnival
Modeled after ancient Greek and Roman festivals, the Carnival of Venice is a holiday that allowed regular citizens to dress up in anonymous costumes, making fun of the aristocracy without fear.
The history of Carnival dates back to 1094, when Doge Vitale Falier first mentioned the word “carnevale” in a document as a way of describing public amusements.
2. Shrove Tuesday Holiday
In 1162 the Republic of Venice defeated Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia, in a battle that year and slaughtered a bull and twelve pigs in Piazza San Marco to commemorate the victory. This celebration was around Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent).
However Carnevale di Venezia wasn’t officially recorded until 1268. And the following year, the Senate declared the day before Lent a public holiday.
3. Carnival Was Canceled In The Past…
The anonymity of Carnival eventually backfired, allowing criminals to get away with all kinds of crimes behind the masks, and it was banned for almost two centuries in 1798 when the city was under Austrian rule.
Venice Carnival was also outlawed under the fascist Italian government during the 1930s. It eventually came back though, in 1979.
The Italian government wanted to promote the history and culture of Venice. Now the festival gets about 3 million visitors each year!
4. Venice Carnival On A Budget
Traveling to Venice during Carnival can be expensive, as the city’s hotels are booked up months in advance, renting cool costumes starts at around €200 per day, and the fancy costume dinner parties and evening balls can run €500 a ticket.
However you can visit Carnivale on a budget, like we did, if you go mid-week, buy a simple mask, and just enjoy all the free activities. There are some free concerts, plays, and public events — plus of course just walking around and admiring all the crazy costumes!
5. Traditional Venetian Masks
While people wear all sorts of masks to Carnival these days, there are a handful of traditional style masks that have been worn for centuries. These include the Bauta, Moretta, Gnaga, Medico della Pesta, Pantalone, Arlechino, and Colombina.
Medico della Pesta, aka “The Plague Doctor”, started off as an actual piece of medical equipment (old-school PPE!) used in Venice during the Plague. The Black Death hit the city hard, and from 1629-1631 it killed 46,000 people (out of 140,000 people, so about 33% of the population.)
Venice is no stranger to pandemics, that’s for sure. And the dark history of this period lives on in the masks that are worn during Carnival.
6. When Is Venice Carnival?
The Venice Carnival celebration is held each year in the winter, usually in early February, sometimes late January. The celebration lasts about 2-weeks, with many of the highlights happening on weekends.
We visited Carnival during the middle of the week, and while we missed out on some of the big parades, we also avoided most of the huge crowds this city is known for. I was expecting it to be much more busy than it was!
7. The Gnaga Mask
The Gnaga Mask resembles a female cat, traditionally worn by men disguised as women. Often worn with women’s clothing and a basket under the arm, which usually (during the 18th century) contained a REAL kitten.
The wearer would behave like a plebeian courtesan, uttering acute sounds and mocking “meows”. The creativity and detail of some of these costumes was amazing! This Gnaga mask was covered in fur, and I suspect the wearer made this costume her-(him?)self. See the stuffed cat in the basket?
8. Venice Carnival Activities & Events
There are many cool events, parades, and other activities to do during Venice Carnival, here’s a list of some of the most popular ones:
- Flight Of The Angel
- Daily Costume Parades
- Best Mask Contest
- Free Vivaldi Concert
- Doge’s Courtesan Ball
9. Getting Around Venice
Most people enter Venice through the Piazzale Roma bus/train terminal after taking a bus from the airport, or Stazione di Venezia train station if they arrived by train. From there, you can hop on a public Vaporetto water taxi to get to your hotel.
Venice also has private water taxis (motoscafi) that cost a bit more, but make you look super cool cruising in a wooden speedboat down the canals.
Finally, there is the Traghetto, a sort of public gondola (pictured above) that takes people from one side of a canal to the other. There are a handful of traghetto piers if you keep your eye out for them, and rides cost €4 EURO.
10. Colombina Style Masks
One of the first actresses in the Commedia dell’arte, an early form of professional theater from Italy, though her face was too beautiful to cover completely, so she wore a half-mask. The mask type quickly became popular and now you’ll find them decorated feathers, crystals, plus gold & silver leaf.
11. Gondola Docks At Sunrise
The gondola docks at St. Mark’s Square are one of the top photography spots in Venice, and getting up at sunrise during Carnival I was pleasantly surprised to find all kinds of costumed people posing for photographers as the sun came up behind them with a backdrop of cotton-candy skies.
12. St. Mark’s Square
Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square, is the heart of Venice during Carnival. It is Venice’s main public square, and the location of many public events and local landmarks. During Carnival, they put on free shows for the public that include jugglers, acrobats and musicians.
13. Getting Lost In Venice Neighborhoods
14. Some Matching Costumes
The tradition of wearing masks during Carnival was to hide your social status. That way the ultra rich and poor could mingle & party together.
Similar to Halloween in the United States, you are free to dress up and act out a fantasy while hiding behind the mask — and pretend to be someone else without judgment.
15. Super Expensive Costumes
Many people rent costumes in Venice for the Carnival, which typically start around €200 for men’s costumes and around €350 for women’s costumes (per day). That price doesn’t include a wig, mask or other accessories either, so it gets expensive!
Others spend all year (or years) putting together their own costumes, some of which can cost thousands of dollars. Some of the costumes we saw there were absolutely wild.
16. Where To Buy Authentic Venetian Masks
If you want to buy a REAL Venetian-made mask, don’t buy the cheap ones at little street vendor shops, go to one of the professional mask makers’ shops in Venice. You’ll pay more, but they’re so much better. Here are some recommendations:
- Benor Maschere Venezia in the Santa Croce neighborhood
- Ca’ Macana in the Dorsoduro neighborhood
- Mondonovo Maschere in the Dorsoduro neighborhood
17: Modern Carnivale Monster
You don’t need to be dressed in a classic, traditional costume for Carnival in Venice. There are plenty of people wearing more modern costumes, like this guy.
18: The Golden Jester
19. Costumes & Ancient City Streets
20. Tips For Photographing Venice Carnival
While it’s difficult to take a bad photo in Venice, during Carnival, there are certain popular locations where you’ll find all the best costumes.
- The Waterfront Promenade (in front of Palazzo Ducale) is especially cool at sunrise and sunset, as everyone wants their photo taken by the water’s edge.
- San Marcos (Saint Mark’s) Square, especially under the pillars of Palazzo Ducale (Doge Palace).
- The Bridge Of Sighs is a unique enclosed bridge of white limestone spanning the Rio di Palazzo canal.
To get images of people in costumes without huge crowds around, get out and explore at sunrise. Even though its early, you’ll still find many of the most beautiful costumed people out and about, because it’s the best time for photos (and they know it).