Venice's World-famous Carnival Celebration Is Finally Back — Here's What It's Like to Attend
According to Venetian officials, Carnival — the elaborate two-week celebration before the start of Lent — was always going ahead this year, after last year's cancellation. However, on the street, it was another story. In the weeks leading up to the annual Carnival season, running from Feb. 12 to March 1 this year in accordance with the Christian calendar, travel rules and restrictions for both visitors and locals were changing nearly by the week, if not the day, and it seemed like no one — hotels, party organizers, tourists (including this one) — was sure that it was actually going to happen. This is how, two weeks before I was supposed to leave for Venice, I ended up frantically contacting private travel consultant extraordinaire and Italy expert Merrion Charles, begging for last-minute advice. As the go-to Italian fixer for A-listers such as Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Coldplay, Merrion immediately came to the rescue and put me in touch with one of the city's best guides — the born and bred Venetian, Giorgia Chiozzi.
"We knew Carnevale was returning, but we didn't know what to expect, and there was a lot of uncertainty," Giorgia tells me two weeks later, as we weave through the Carnival crowds in Piazza San Marco, ground zero for the celebrations.
As promised, the festivities have returned to Venice: Windows of pastry shops are piled high with sugar-dusted treats like galani (paper-thin strips of fried dough) and frittole (fat doughnut balls studded with raisins and pine nuts). The canal-lined streets are strewn with colorful coriandoli (paper confetti) and tangles of unspooling streamers. And the famed, fantastical maschere (opulently costumed and masked figures who come from all over the world) pose and peacock for the tourists — of which there are plenty.
There are no final counts yet, but Giorgia tells me that the crowds look slightly smaller this year, as there's a "diffused program" with small stages and theaters set up throughout the city's campos (squares), rather than just in Piazza San Marco, to dilute the concentration of people. However, the buzz is undeniably back, if a bit softer.
Some of Carnival's traditional events have been canceled from the outset, like the Volo dell'Angelo (Flight of the Angel), where a costumed woman "floats" down from the bell tower in Piazza San Marco, but other festivities have been given the green light at the eleventh hour, including Il Ballo del Doge, the biggest and most luxurious masquerade ball. It falls on Feb. 26 this year, yet it was only given the official go-ahead on Feb. 10.
"The theme of this year's Ballo del Doge is Time for a New Renaissance," says Antonia Sautter, creator and artistic director of the lavish event, a staple on Venice's Carnival calendar for nearly 30 years. "Art has been considered not superfluous or essential, but I would say the contrary: Art is essential, and it can be the key to becoming enlightened from all our fears and heavy thoughts," she says.
"Carnival itself has particular significance at this moment. In the past era, it has always been a ritual of passage between the darkness to the light and winter to the spring, and this year, it's [passing us] into the springtime of the soul. We've been thinking too much, and now it's time to enjoy life — at least for some hours."
In addition to her work with Ballo del Doge, Antonia also has a costume atelier, a sumptuous cave of wonders filled with fabrics, finery, feathers, and fantasy (some of her masks even made an appearance in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut"). Looking at this year's sales, Antonia has noticed some new costume trends: "Full masks are more accepted now because they hide your nose and mouth. But [more so], people want their face free and prefer to have something in their hair or on their head as opposed to over their face and eyes [because our] eyes have been our only way to communicate with each other."
Outdoor mask mandates were only lifted in Venice several weeks ago. However, attendees at this year's Ballo del Doge at the Palazzo Pisani Moretta will have to wear masks, as they're mandatory indoors, as well as show their Super Green Pass to prove recent vaccination status. This year, the event will be smaller, and ticket sales are currently around 50% (compared to previous sold-out editions).
It's a similar story at another one of Venice's best artisan costume ateliers. "Business is just 30% of what it would be normally," says Stefano Nicolao of Nicolao Atelier. Dating back to 1980, Nicolao Atelier produces handmade historical attire — not just for Carnival (he usually makes the costume for the Flight of the Angel), but also for theater and film, including Pirates of the Caribbean and Outlander, to name but a few. "Up until a few months ago, we didn't know what was going on, but now it's getting better because all events — [not just Carnival] — are coming back."
With tourist numbers up, Venice's top hotels share a spirit of cautious optimism. "At Aman Venice, we've been very fortunate to have both loyal and new guests staying with us throughout Carnival," says Licinio Garavaglia, general manager of Aman Venice, which is, in fact, currently busier than in previous non-pandemic years. "Our forecast was conservative given our assumption that this year's Carnival would be more low-key. [However], we are encouraged to see very high occupancy throughout February."
Where to Stay During Carnival
Above the Action
A 24-room rococo fantasy dripping in gleaming gold, dizzying frescos, and putti aplenty, Aman Venice needs little introduction. (George and Amal got married here, which tell you everything you need to know.) Set on the Grand Canal, just a short walk from Piazza San Marco, Aman Venice is the place to stay for an extravagant Carnival trip if you want to be in the heart of the action, though because it's discreetly tucked away down a narrow callette and flanked by two private gardens (a rarity in the city), there's still a sense of privacy, exclusivity, and remoteness.
For those who prefer an escape from the Carnival masses, Charles suggests private accommodations in a sestriere (district) filled with locals, such as Casa Codussi, a chicly restored waterfront palazzo with altana (rooftop wooden terraces) and a private boat deck, in the Castello area. Castello borders the action-packed, confetti-covered San Marco district, but the streets get noticeably quieter and the number of revelers reduces as you walk toward Castello.
"Castello is authentic," Giorgia tells me. "It's one of the only places in Venice where you'll see laundry hanging from the windows because Venetians really live there." Even with the local vibe, there's still plenty of Carnival spirit in Castello: The grand opening of Carnival, La Festa Veneziana Sull'acqua (Venetian Water Festival), is usually held in the Rio di Cannaregio, but to guarantee social distancing this year, it was moved to the Arsenale, a former shipyard and armory right in the heart of Castello.