Mystical was the first word that came to mind when I stepped out of Santa Lucia train station and onto the bank of Venice’s Grand Canal more than 15 years ago. I had never seen a cityscape like it before, and it’s still the only place I’ve traveled where I’ve frozen in my tracks, unwilling to blink for fear I might lose a moment forever. Mesmerized by its achingly beautiful fusion of mostly Venetian Gothic architecture with labyrinthine waterways, I knew I would someday return.
I learned about Carnevale di Venezia (Carnival of Venice), the annual masked festival, when I was there on my first visit in the early 2000s. With roots believed to date back to the 12th century and a checkered history, Carnevale experienced a renaissance in 1979 when the city decided to reinstate it as an official, two-week-long celebration each winter.
Now, it is one of the world’s most famous and grand spectacles.
I realized this was exactly the occasion I wanted to observe during my repeat visit. Soon after moving to Europe last year, I planned my cultural adventure.
Being dazzled in Piazza San Marco
Careful perusal of the official Carnevale site revealed the majority of festival events would take place in or around the city’s main square, Piazza San Marco, so I chose to say nearby.
My proximity to the square led to a blissfully easy daily routine, as I wound my way through a few tiny alleyways each morning, crossed the arched bridge over the narrow Rio de San Moise, and emerged in the vast expanse of the Piazza a mere five minutes later. Arriving early, I absorbed its sleepy ambience as the rest of the city was still waking up.
Slowly, masqueraders began to stroll through the square, scoping out the best spots to pose. By mid-morning, the Piazza transformed into a surreal, living art gallery, peppered with festival participants elaborately decked out in costumes that stretched the boundaries of imagination. Ranging from historically referenced to classically elegant, avant garde to outright outlandish, each festooned costume appeared more fantastical than the last.
Against the backdrop of the square’s ornate architecture and gloriously faded facades, the scenes that played out here made me feel like I had fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole and into an immersive theater production.
Making things personal
While the masks that had taken over Venice were undeniably beautiful, they also tended to depersonalize the people wearing them. According to one well-regarded theory, that was one of the historical reasons for popularizing this form of dress during prior versions of Carnevale — to temporarily erode societal class distinctions.
Still, I thought it important to interact with the gracious people who patiently posed for me. Gently providing guidance and, of course, agreeing to share the images, I made sure I smiled and said “grazie” to each and every person I photographed. It was the right thing to do, and also made for a richer, more rewarding experience.
Embracing the antics of the mask and costume contests
In the Piazza, I observed a few of the mask and costume contests held several times every day. My inability to understand the Italian narration added a layer of playful confusion to the proceedings, while enthusiastic competitors strutted their stuff on a temporary catwalk, sharing insights with hosts who charismatically presided over the ceremonies.
Despite a certain degree of formality and requisite awards, the tone was casual and lighthearted. Spectators standing at the base of the stage could come and go as they pleased. As participants left the stage, many posed for onlookers, creating another opportunity to interact with the best dressed masqueraders riding the high of a sartorial victory.
Cheering the children on
While much of Carnevale felt like an adults-only playground, aspects of it were surprisingly family-friendly. One morning, I stumbled upon a queue of irresistibly adorable children in the Piazza. Dressed in their finest, their gazes were almost as intensely fixated on the stage as their adult counterparts as they mentally prepared for a costume contest dedicated solely to them. Within minutes, the crowd enveloped them in a spirited display of support.
Venturing beyond the classic close-up
As the days progressed, I became more interested in seeking photographic possibilities beyond close-up portraits for more visual context and variety. After all, I was in Venice — a city rich with texture, replete with hidden spots, and arguably even more beautiful after daylight had faded from the sky. So I looked carefully for masqueraders who weren’t already deluged with personal paparazzi. I ventured away from the crowds. And I photographed past sunset and into dusk.
Along the way, I gained a renewed appreciation for Venice’s unique details and how light, in all its iterations, seemed to gracefully drape this city unlike anywhere else.
Braving the winds
One afternoon, the weather took a slight turn for the worse and many attendees decided they’d had enough. But the heartiest remained in the Piazza, embracing the cooler temperature and grey skies. Suddenly, the wind kicked up and created miniature cyclones that spun confetti into airy confections and whipped children (and a few adults) into an excited frenzy. Unprompted and unexpected, this was one of those perfect moments you just can’t plan.
Seconds later, a flurry of white caught my eye, and I quickly moved to get a better angle. Without the embellishments and deeply saturated hues of many of her fellow masqueraders’ costumes, this woman’s outfit stood out in its relative simplicity. As the wind caught the bottom of her hoop skirt, she became a floating apparition, and I took a moment to revel in the illusion.
Throughout the city, various shops replaced traditional mannequins with live costumed models, making for great little surprises while exploring Venice’s tempting array of expertly-curated boutiques. I stumbled upon a similar scene while walking past Caffe Florian, the oldest cafe in Europe. Opened in 1720, Florian looked like a stage set with its extravagant decor and even more ostentatious characters. I was drawn to the anachronism of historical references and smartphones.
…for more than I bargained
I became so caught up in the moment and the vice-like grip of the crowd surrounding me, I didn’t feel a thing when someone snatched my wallet right out of my bag. Before I knew it, all my Euros had vanished and my wallet had been dropped at my feet. I lamented my cash deficit while feeling strangely grateful the pickpocket decided to leave my cards behind.
Despite being a seasoned traveler, the magic of Carnevale ensnared me to the point of total distraction. Immersion came at a price!
I had long ago become intrigued by Carnevale’s supposedly debaucherous parties and convinced myself (and my husband, Mark) that attending a formal ball was essential to fully experiencing Carnevale. Tapping into my penchant for planning, I secured mandatory costume rentals several months in advance. Once inside the Tragicomica atelier, one of the few shops that still craft traditional masks and more by hand, ladies scurried around me. They demystified my hoop skirt and corset, finessed my gown’s gilded embroidery, and fitted me with long black gloves, a choker, and a golden mask.
After Mark completed his fitting, we made final preparations before crossing the Grand Canal to the 15th century Palazzo Pisani Moretta for the Gran Ballo Mascheranda – Serenissima Venezia. Within the palace’s poshly decorated Baroque interior, we indulged in an apertif and admired the evening’s first, rather sensual performances. In the main hall, a gala dinner was accompanied by an eclectic mix of live musical and theatrical performances. Guests partook in period dancing lessons and, for a jolt back into modern times, descended into a much more contemporary after-party downstairs.
Hedonistic and over-the-top, Mascheranda was a festive experience I won’t soon forget.
Exploring Venice beyond Carnevale
One of Carnevale’s undebatable stars was clearly Venice itself, and I was eager to see its most notable treasures again and discover new ones.
While tempted by various charming bacari (wine bars), I instead refueled for my explorations with the heartier culinary fare at osterias and trattorias dotting the city, like Osteria San Marco. A Carnevale-specific fritole (sweet fritter) or two may have crossed my path.
I revisited old favorites, including the imposing Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, and Santa Maria della Salute. I traversed neighborhoods like San Polo, allowing myself to get a little lost — in and of itself a quintessential experience in convoluted Venice. On a vaporetto (water bus), I zipped to San Giorgio Maggiore for the city’s most sublime, peaceful view from the Campanile (bell tower) of the diminutive island’s namesake church. Venturing further afield, I wandered the sparsely populated sliver of an island known as Torcello, indulging in one of the finest meals of my visit at Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo. And I soaked up the late afternoon sun on color-drenched Burano.
Returning to the main island, I braved the crowds on the Rialto Bridge and atop the nearly-new, luxe shopping mecca, T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, because those vistas just never get old.
Fulfilled by my escapades yet not ready to leave, I begrudgingly repacked and prepared to head home on the festival’s final day. Peering wistfully out of the back of my water taxi’s window, I reflected on the singular seductive power of Venice, its melancholic romance only heightened during Carnevale. No wonder I keep going back for more.