Carnevale di Venezia – masks, costumes, boats and fritelle
Masks are an integral part of Venetian history and there is no better time to see them (and wear them) than during the annual Carnevale di Venzia, an event with historical roots that go back several centuries.
This year’s carnevale takes place between January 23 and Feb 9 and we took the high speed train from Rome to Venice to participate in the opening weekend festivities of the famous event.
We arrived a day before the festivities were to begin and immediately fell under the spell of this magical city. The narrow canals, gondolas, grand palazzi, the vaporetti gliding on the gran canal, lights shimmering off the water, the ancient basilica and bell tower, everywhere you looked there was something special.
We were booked for dinner at a seafood restaurant on the first night but changed our plans and bought tickets for a Verdi opera at the historic Gran Teatro la Fenice, a theatre with a history of arson and intrigue ( it was consumed by fire twice, in 1836 and again in 1996). The theatre was rebuilt to the original specifications “how it was, where it was” and features an ornate and gilded Royal Box in the center where we were able to get the last two seats. The evening was memorable and a fitting first night in a city that gave the world opera and is known for its beautiful music (Vivaldi was Venetian).
The next evening was the opening night of the Carnevale and a floating boat parade was to take place on one of the smaller canals, the Cannareggio not far from the famous Rialto market.
We made our way to the area partly on the vaporetto (bus boat) and party by foot over the bridges and along the narrow streets. People around us were wearing fantastic masks and some were dressed in various costumes. The main theme of the festival though are the masks. They are absolutely essential in transforming and transporting you into this fantasy carnevale world.
On one of the streets we stumbled upon a little hole in the wall mask shop that turned out to be very special. La Botega dei Mascareri is world renowned for its fabulous hand made masks created by two Venetian craftsmen brothers, Sergio and Massimo Boldrin. One look at the masks in their small display window and I could tell instantly that these were no ordinary masks that vendors sell all over town. We went in to investigate and sure enough, learned from Sergio that they make and paint all their masks by hand (a dying art) and have made masks for Hollywood movies (Eyes Wide Shut is one) and other major events worldwide. The masks were simply magnificent and the quality superior. We bought a couple of small masks and Sergio autographed them as he usually does with these works of art. I could have bought half the store but had to restrain myself. What would I do with all these masks?
We donned our masks, tied them at the back with the black ribbons and off we went to the Carnevale. By the time we got there the Guilia bridge over the canal was full of people packed together waiting for the show to begin. We tried to stand along the canal but I couldn’t see through the throngs of people so I left my tall husband standing there and managed to squeeze to the top of the bridge and stand behind a couple of rows of people with a fairly clear view farther down the canal. We waited forever for something to happen and eventually the boat parade begun. By then it was dark and the parade was progressing slowly with quite a long time between each boat. Although they were decorated beautifully and some had dramatic shows, the entire event was a little underwhelming with long waits between boats, not very good lighting and most of hte boats didn’t come as far as the bridge we were standing on. The images I see online were beautiful but in person, you know, I expected more of a “big show”. But, it was interesting and exciting just the same. Maybe I was standing at the wrong vantage point.
The next morning at 11:00 there was the daytime boat parade on the grand canal and this event really hit the mark. After running around a bit on the vaporetto looking for the best place from which to watch the colourful parade we got off on the wooden Academia bridge on the grand canal and settled in the front row on top of the bridge ready to watch the floating parade. Colourful, decorated boats filled with people in beautiful costumes were heading to the opening of the gran canal where the parade was departing from so we had a preview of what was to come. All around us people were wearing masks, some where dressed in period costumes and the mood was celebratory.
Eventually the music started playing, the police boat was clearing the way and the beautiful, colourful boat entourage was slowly making its way towards us up the gran canal. What a sight. Each boat had its own theme, from a chefs to monks, to clowns, pajama party, balloons and more. At some point all the boats lifted the ores up saluting us standing on the first bridge they crossed. It was party time and everyone was in the mood to celebrate.
Once the parade passed and the crowds dispersed we hopped on the vaporetto once again to go to the canal along the Rialto market, where a pianist was performing on a platform hanging from a crane set on a barge. We saw the barge earlier floating down the canal with the pianist playing from the paltform. It attracted a lot of attention and was fun to watch and listen to. At the rialto area people lined up along the river singing along with the performers and generally enjoying and participating in the festivities.
Walking around venice was special this weekend. Couples in gorgeous period clothes were walking around completely in character wearing masks and sometimes wigs, behaving like aristocrats from time gone by. They walked slowly parading their gorgeous costumes, stopping to have pictures taken with the countless of tourists wanting a memento. These costumes are hand made in Venice in a couple of small ateliers and they are remarkable. From the shoes to the dresses and wigs every item is made as authentic as possible. Fabrics are made to match the old style fabrics, shoes are hand made in period designs and wigs are made in previous centuries style and colours. I was wondering if it is the city of Venice that hires people to walk around and provide them with the costumes but was told by a couple of locals that this is a private endeavour of Venetians who spend the money on buying or renting these expensive costumes and do so to promote this fantastic historic event. I saw one entire family dressed in period costumes walking around and posing for picture at San Marco piazza. Quite remarkable.
Of course, where there is carnevale there is carnevale food, and it tends to be sweet and fried. My favourite were the fritelle, fried sweet dumplings made with either baking powder and eggs or with yeast. these fritters are fried and then filled with vanilla cream nutella or other fillings. There are a few variations but the traditional ones are made with yeast and filled with raisins and pine nuts and tend to be more dense The eggs and baking powder versions are a little more fluffy. We passed by many pastry shops displaying mounds of these delicious sugary offerings and I could not stop myself from trying this one, and then another, and then another. By dinner time I was so full I could not eat a bite.
The other traditional sweet is the “Galani”, a sheet of crisp sugary pastry made with flour, eggs butter and sugar. The dough is rolled see-through thin, cut into rectangles and fried in oil, then dredged in sugar while still hot. These were also delicious and they seem to be happening also in Rome because I have been buying them for a while now at our local pastry shop on our street (how fun to say “our street” when speaking of Rome).
The carnevale was just beginning and most of the main events are yet to come. There will be competitions for best costumes, best masks, selection of the twelve Marys (the historical origin of the carnevale) and many mask and costume balls, theme dinners and more. If you are visiting Venice check out the carnevale’s website for event information. San Marco square was being transformed into a Rialto market scene that unfortunatley was not yet finished while we were there. Eventually we had to leave to go back to Rome so we only got a taste of the festival, but enough to whet our appetite and leaving us wanting more.
Next time I will plan a longer stay to experience the carnevale in full swing.