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Why the Venetians have a complicated relationship with the city's 1,000-year-old Carnival

Travel writer Jan Morris memorably described Venice in the summertime as “one great itchy palm”. Venice during Carnival, however, is another beast entirely: a full-blown episode of delirium tremens, quivering adrift in the back of a gondola, wearing nothing but “I Heart Venice” boxer shorts and a plague doctor mask. 

Venice Carnival 2022 - Sebastian Fagarazzi
Venice Carnival 2022 - Sebastian Fagarazzi© Sebastian Fagarazzi

As the old saying goes around these parts, “A Carnevale, ogni scherzo vale.” At Carnival, anything goes. 

venice carnival - Carnevale di Venezia
venice carnival - Carnevale di Venezia© Provided by The Telegraph

Annual celebrations at this time of year have been held in Venice for almost 1,000 years, but it was during the 17th- and 18th-century heyday of the Venetian Republic that Carnival reached its apogee: a Dionysian riot of gambling, theatre and sexual freedom in the weeks leading up to Lent. Then, as now, the city became a gallery of blank masks, used to disguise the wearers in their licentiousness. 

“In the days of the Republic, society was very strictly divided into social classes,” tour guide Luisella Romeo explained as we fought through the crowds of the Castello district, the air thick with the smell of frittelle (Carnival doughnut balls, fried in pork fat and filled with raisins and pine nuts).  

venice carnival - Carnevale di Venezia
venice carnival - Carnevale di Venezia© Provided by The Telegraph

“The aristocratic families wanted to preserve their wealth, which meant having as few marriages and children as possible,” Luisella said. “Many were sent to be monks or nuns; those who married were not marrying the ones they loved. It was an economic choice.” 

The masked soirées of Carnival provided opportunities for escape from this social straitjacket. “Carnival was a time of rebellion and transgression,” Luisella said, “but this came at a risk to your reputation. That’s why everybody wore the same plain white mask. Underneath could be anyone: a married man or woman, a cardinal, a nun.”

The Republic fell in 1797, and the new Austrian rulers outlawed Carnival and the wearing of masks, disapproving of the debauchery. It was only in 1979 that Carnival returned, now the centrepiece of Venice’s modern tourism drive.  

Venice Carnival - Sebastian Fagarazzi
Venice Carnival - Sebastian Fagarazzi© Provided by The Telegraph

I was in the market for a mask myself (with entirely innocent intentions, you understand), so Luisella took me to Papier Mache, the oldest mask workshop in Venice, which opened in 1977. Manuela Gottardo showed us the workshop’s selection of traditional facewear: the original, ghost-white larva; the plague doctor mask, which entered Carnival culture as a memento mori and has, curiously, seen a recent uptick in popularity; and the muta (mute), a black oval traditionally worn by women, who held it in place by biting a button behind the mask’s mouth. 

Manuela’s shop upholds a centuries-old mask-making tradition, but, like many things Venetian, is now completely reliant on tourism. “When it was quieter, during the pandemic, the quality of our work was better,” she said. “But we live for tourism now.” 

venice carnival
venice carnival© Provided by The Telegraph

This is typical of Venetians’ complicated relationship with Carnival, the event which magnifies more than any other the city’s reliance on tourism. On the one hand, this is the busiest time of year, crucial to the survival of traditional businesses like Manuela’s. 

On the other hand, Venice is a city already frayed by overtourism, its bridges sighing under the weight of millions of footsteps. There is a rather sad LED ticker in the window of a pharmacy in Campo San Bartolomio which records Venice’s permanent population in ever-declining digits. During my visit it read 49,708 – down from over 174,000 in the 1950s. Meanwhile, tourist numbers surge: on a busy day, the city sees 120,000 visitors. Tourism in Venice is both the blade and the balm. 

Through the pharmacy window, a corpulent man in a Las Vegas sweatshirt and a harlequin mask grabbed fistfuls of Alka-Seltzer from a shelf. “Drinking in Venice is becoming a problem,” said Luisella. “Tourists and people from the mainland come deliberately to drink a lot, because you don’t need a car.”  

venice carnival - Carnevale di Venezia
venice carnival - Carnevale di Venezia© Provided by The Telegraph

I shrank slightly, recalling my own spritz consumption over the last couple of days. Changing the subject, I asked Luisella how she would be spending Carnival’s climactic weekend herself – the Doge’s Ball in the Palazzo Pisani Moretta, perhaps, or a booze cruise on the lagoon? She looked confused. “I’m going skiing,” she said. “Venetians tend to escape during Carnival.”

Not all locals jump ship. One Venetian striving to return Carnival to its local, artistic roots is actor and theatre director Mattia Berto, who marked this year’s event by recruiting residents to stage a giant, symbolic tug-of-war in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo. 

Venice Carnival - Mattia Berto
Venice Carnival - Mattia Berto© Provided by The Telegraph

“The rope we are pulling between the real Venice and touristic Venice is almost broken,” he told me. “I strongly believe Carnival has to get back to the street and to the urban spaces. I’d love a Carnival of citizens, something you build the whole year from shopkeepers to gondoliers. Let’s try to make the city the protagonist for the ones living here, as well as for those visiting for a short time.”

That evening, I was invited to a dance performance by the Isadora Duncan International Institute, hosted in the grand surroundings of the Palazzo Contarini Polignac. Built on the Grand Canal in the 15th century, this Renaissance-Byzantine pile was once home to sewing-machine heiress Winnaretta Singer, whose family’s legacy could be seen in the fabulous costumes which surrounded me: richly embroidered masks, fezzes and robes; dresses studded with crystals and adorned with feathers. 

Venice Carnival - Michel Setboun
Venice Carnival - Michel Setboun© Provided by The Telegraph

No one makes them better than Marina Lazzaro, atelier at Scatola Magica. Her customers, barely any of whom are Venetian, are tireless in their commitment to the perfect Carnival costume. “When you wear a costume you become someone else – the person you want to be,” she said. “Some of my clients are 70 or 80. But the costumes are never too heavy, and they say, ‘I’ll just drink some Prosecco and I won’t feel the cold!’”

Having taken that sentiment a little too much to heart, I slunk out the next morning in search of a hangover cure at the famous Caffè Florian, sickening further at the cost of a cheese toastie and an espresso (€22, if you’re wondering).  

Venice Carnival - Getty ImagesVenice Carnival - Getty Images© Provided by The Telegraph

This splendid Baroque coffee house is where Marina’s clients, festooned and gold-hatted, gather to compare their glad rags. Through vast, floor-to-ceiling windows, passing Venetians peer in with amusement at the strangely dressed visitors, cosplaying as figures from centuries past. 

The tourists, meanwhile, gaze back out at the city that their footsteps abrade and their money preserves. 

Although magnified during Carnival, it’s the same story that plays out year-round: heavily outnumbered by tourists, Venetians have become something of spectators in their own city. 

“It’s a double theatre: the people inside watch those outside, and the people outside watch those inside,” said Luisella. “The question is, which is the stage? And who is watching whom?”

Carnival in numbers
Carnival in numbers© Provided by The Telegraph 
Reference: The Telegraph: Story by Daniel Stables 

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