The Venice carnival goes as far back as 13/14th century. At that time masqueraders would at night go about their ‘rendezvous’ and even to monasteries where the nuns lived. Several decrees were made to prohibit wearing masks at night, men dressed as women entering the monasteries, etc to prevent further moral decline of their society. Initially masks are forbidden but it grew so popular with royalties and rich families coming to Venice to party and splurge that it stayed. The masks and costumes allowed the rich and poor to mingle together and celebrate the festivities (including hiding the identity of the wearer so they could indulge in decadent activities – to trangress the harsh social rules imposed by the Serene Republic) ending in the beginning of Lent. Although the version we see today was revived 2 decades ago and has now become more of an arts and performance celebration rather than what it was in the past. This year it starts from Feb 14th and ending on 24th which is Shrove Tuesday(Martedi Grasso – italian or Mardi Gras – French). You can read a lot more about the Venice carnival on the various websites and her historical aspects.
In her good old days Venice was also known to be a very libertine society – also in respect to homosexuals.
This year the theme is 6 senses in line with the 6 sestieri (sectors) in Venice. http://www.carnevale.venezia.it/ Each sestieri represents a sense. For instance, Dorsudoro is hearing hence concerts will be held around Dorsudoro’s campos while Canneregio is fo ‘taste’ – food stalls and restaurants get into the spirit of carnival while promoting foods from around the region.
Today, carnevale is growing strong with many activities for the young and old. People take pains to dress up in period costumes or any costumes. Various groups of people from Europe like France, Germany and Russia come to participate specially in the carnevale in their 18th Century or from napoleanic era costumes – very well preserved. Normally they will also hold masquerade balls in the various palazzos here in Venice. However, through only special invitations. But for the rest of us, there are shows and concerts , street performances from artistes all over the world and including public balls/parties which you pay around €190-450 for a dinner and show in one of the palazzos , some events will even throw in a gondola ride with the price.
If you have to choose one time to visit Venice, I would recommend the carnevale (and not summer which is normally too hot and full of mosquitoes). Come with your costumes and join in the revelry… this is defintely one of the best places to do it! And if you are game enough to come in a period costume , please go have a cup of coffee and cake at Cafe Florian on San Marco square. The ambience is extra special then. Ask for Mauro Hartz, and say hi to him. He can be found sometimes by the door.
Viva, viva il carnevale!