Carnival in Venice: The theatre brought to life

With February just passed, a multitude of events rose from the ashes of Christmas. For example Mardi-Gras most famously celebrated in Rio de Janeiro. However I thought of something closer to home to celebrate the festival of Shrove Tuesday, and that was ’ Carnevale’ in Venice.

The Carnival ends with Lent, forty days before Easter on Shrove Tuesday, known as Martedì Grasso in Italian. Carnival, being a pre-Lent festival, means ‘farewell to meat’ and is celebrated throughout Italy. It was first held in Venice in the 11th century and consisted of over two months of partying, until its popularity declined during the 18th century. It was revived again in 1979 with great success and nowadays it is a great excuse to throw on a mask and costume to parade around the city.

Carnival this year was from the 26th January until the 12th February and is an event one should attend at some point in their life. Many have the preconception that the carnival in Venice is about dressing up for the Venetian balls, lavish, extravagant and I would like to add, expensive events. However I found that the best of the Carnival lay in the streets and squares of Venice itself.

If you are to go to Venice for Carnival next year, I highly recommend preparing or bringing a costume for walking the streets. After all, where else can you walk around in a costume during the day and feel it is completely normal? Well actually, it was a beyond normal experience but perfectly conventional. I first experienced carnival this year with my boyfriend, and as soon as we stepped out onto the streets of Venice in our masks and costumes all eyes were on us. We dressed up as me, Columbina and him, Arlecchino from the Commedia dell’Arte, a form of improvisational theatre popularised in the 16th century.

We were stopped by tourists asking for our photograph or to take their photo with us, and my normal camera-shy self was more than happy to pose for these photos. Being in a costume and mask gave me an alter-ego for the day. I finally understood the whole concept of the superhero, feeling like I can have a completely different identity hidden behind a mask and costume, no one knew who I was. My boyfriend would play up to his cheeky character of Arlecchino who is also somewhat of a prankster. He would jump into people’s photos and follow and mimic people such as the Gondoliers or tour guides. These actions which may have usually been greeted by hostile behaviour were replaced with people laughing and encouraging the joke. The happiness of Carnival is infectious!

The centre point for carnival in Venice is the ‘Gran Teatro’ in the Piazza san Marco. By day the ‘Gran Teatro’ was the main stage for the daily costume parade where the best costumes walking the streets of Venice are plucked from the crowds to exhibit their costume on the stage in competition. At night though, it provided evening entertainment with a different theme each night. One evening the theatre would provide you with jazz then another you would be dancing in the square to funk music. The Piazza san Marco is also the place to be to experience popular occurrences during the carnival, such as the ’flight of the angel’ where a woman is suspended along a wire and appears to fly across the square from the tower at one end to the stage of the theatre at the other.

For the photographer in you though, Carnival is also a great opportunity for taking the best photographs in Venice. Your standard tourism photos of famous landmarks will quirkily incorporate people walking around in masks and dressed up in costume in the background. Along the bank, by the Doges Palace, the best dressed and most elaborate characters would emerge just before sunset to have their photographs taken. There were literally dozens of people in costume, it was beautiful.

There is far too much to talk about when it comes to the experiences and events of carnival, but I can tell you that I would not want to give away too much of the magic of Venetian carnival anyway. In the end that is for you to discover when you don a costume and experience the excitement yourself.

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