Tag Archives: Venice

Celebrating Carnevale in Venice

Costumers on a bridge, Venice

Models on a Small Bridge, Venice

Venice during Carnevale (Carnival) is a magical, mysterious, place. Stunning architecture, hidden romantic corners, dreamy canals, and history around every corner provide the perfect backdrops for the hundreds of models who arrive from around the world to celebrate the ancient festival.

Solange posing on the steps

Solange on the Grand Stairway of a Venetian Palazzo

For two weeks the alleyways and piazzas, the churches and cloisters, the bridges and towers are enveloped in the most lavish, colorful costumes and masks that you will ever see. It is as if you have stepped through a portal into the Renaissance.

No one is quite sure where the practice of wearing costumes and face coverings originated. Some think it was a throwback to an ancient Celtic tradition of covering your face on All Hallows Eve to confound evil spirits who might be lurking. Others believe that it comes from ancient Roman pagan festivities. Perhaps because Venice was at the crossroads of East and West, the veils and turbans favored by travelers from the Orient may also have contributed to the tradition.

The first known instance of Carnevale was in 1162 when people spontaneously came out to celebrate the victory against the German Patriarch of Aquileia (an ancient Roman city on the edge of the lagoon), Ulrico di Treven. By the 1500s, it developed into a way of life, with Venetians authorized to wear masks for up to six months of the year. They covered a multitude of sins, including by providing a means to avoid the strict class structure imposed by society.

Eve rides a gondola through the canals of Venice

Eve posing in a gondola, Venice

Austria outlawed Carnevale when it conquered this part of Italy (in 1797). It was only in 1979 that the festival reignited the public imagination after the Italian Government decided that it would be a perfect way to showcase the history and culture of Venice, also known as La Serenissima.

Today’s Carnevale is one of Italy’s most important festivals with up to a million visitors traveling to Venice to take part. It lasts for two weeks before Lent, ending on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday.

According to Catholic teachings, during the 40 days of Lent, practitioners are not allowed to eat meat or sugar. Celebrating beforehand was a way to use up whatever supplies might remain in the house. It may well be that the word “Carnevale” comes from the Latin words “Carne” and “Vale”, or “Farewell to Meat.”

Costumer outside a medieval church, Venice

Andrea with her leaf mask during Carnevale, Venice

The date of the festival changes with the calendar. This year Carnevale runs from 11 to 28 February. Generally, the second week is the most exciting. Countless parades take place, including a flotilla of gondolas on the Grand Canal. A multitude of parties and balls in some of the city’s most exquisite palaces fill the days and nights. The most extravagant and expensive of these is the Grand Masquerade Ball. Attending any of these events, especially if you want to rent fancy dress, will set you back thousands of dollars.

Betty Blu across from Piazza San Marco

Betty Blu on Punta della Dogana

However, there is plenty to see that won’t cost you a penny. Every day, starting just before dawn, costumed and masked models appear along the waterfront of St. Mark’s Square. They pose near the gondolas as the sun rises over Isola San Giorgio Maggiore; in front of the Bridge of Sighs; on the stone bridges spanning the minuscule canals; in the cloisters of the churches or in front of the doors; in La Fenice Opera House or in the Bovolo Staircase. You will also find them on the islands of Burano and Murano and in the ballrooms of the palazzi.

The costumers, who are a variety of ages (some even in their 70s), are mostly European, predominantly Italian, French, German, and Belgian. We do find one group of costumers who are American teachers in Europe.

Most models have 2-3 different outfits each year, traveling to Venice with several trunks and suitcases. The clothes are handmade by the participants over the course of the year. Some of the dresses are so heavy, small wheels are sewn into the hem so that the person inside can move around more effectively. The headdresses can weigh as much as 7 lbs. Most wear masks on with only the whites of their eyes and irises visible.

As you follow the models around Venice, you have to admire their imagination, spirit, and dedication. They are out every day from early in the morning to late at night. Most will tell you that it is both exhausting and exhilarating.

The Bovolo Staircase, also known as The Snail with Costumers during Venetian Carnival

Models Posing in the Bovolo Staircase, Venice

Crowds of more serious photographers follow them, looking for “the perfect shot,” while tourists surround them clamoring for selfies. Photographing them is addictive. Whether it is taking photos of them in context or close up, you keep coming back for more, looking for different venues or light.

There is a certain etiquette to photographing the costumers. They rarely, if ever, speak. Instead, they communicate with hand gestures. However, if you ask them, they will almost always agree to let you take their photo and will even oblige you by posing in specific ways. All they ask in exchange is for you to send them a copy of your photos by email. Unfortunately, most people never bother, which is a great disappointment for the models.

When you have finished shooting, thank them, and ask for a business card or “cartolino” or “carte de visite.” Or you can use gestures to show that you want their visiting card. Most models carry them tucked away in a pocket or a glove. Sometimes they will ask you to photograph the card as a means of obtaining their contact information.

In addition to the costumers, there are countless visitors who rent fancy dress to get into the spirit of the festival. Even if you choose not to dress up yourself, there is much to see and do in Venice that will make you feel as if you have been transported to another place and time.

Posing in front of the Bridge of Sighs, Venice

The American Contingent near the Bridge of Sighs


If you decide to travel to Venice independently, make your hotel reservations for 2018 as soon as possible. If you would rather travel on a tour with a professional photographer who organizes specific shoots with the models, Jim Zuckerman is one of the best. He has been running photography tours to Carnevale in Venice for over ten years. His photo tours sell out almost instantly, so book early.

During the winter, Venice is often the victim of exceptionally high tides – L’Acqua Alta – that regularly flood the city. Remember to pack a pair of rubber boots or else pick up a pair of colorful clear plastic overshoes sold throughout the city. It is the only way to get around during the flooding.

For more photographs of Carnevale go to http://www.allegriaphotos.com/EUROPE/Italy/Venice-Carnival-2016/.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler

High Waters in Venice


Venice under Water, the Basilica San Marco

Basilica San Marco under High Waters

It rained heavily in Venice this weekend. Big deal! Rain is inevitable. Indeed! But combine the heavy rain with high tide and a strong Sirocco wind blowing off North Africa and Venice is quickly inundated under several feet of water – the infamous Acqua Alta or High Waters.

Yesterday’s flood was particularly intense, cresting at 1m40 or 4.5 feet before the waters began to recede. At that depth, you would need to swim to get through St. Mark’s Square.

The Venetians who still live in the city seem indifferent to it all. They have the appropriate barricades against the water on their doors and, when all else fails, they don their rubber boots and go about their business, cleaning up the ensuing mess as required.

Tourists, on the other hand, seem to think the flooding is an event to be experienced. They take off their shoes and wade through the salt water that covers Piazza San Marco. Some even go swimming when it is deep enough. You have to wonder what they are thinking. Apart from being very cold, the water is a maelström of garbage and debris not to mention having a high bacteria content. It may seem like a lark but this is deadly serious business.

Piazza San Marco underwater

Cafes on Piazza San Marco, High Waters

Built on Alder poles driven into the muddy lagoon, Venice is a collection of about 124 islands inhabited starting in the 7th century and gradually developing into the city we know today. Venetians have always had a number of strategies to defend their city from the sea either by building sea walls or even by diverting two major rivers.

They also developed a system of constructing their palazzos without fixed masonry (a feat of Medieval engineering) that allowed the buildings to move and adapt to the uneven settling of the ground beneath them. Or they built up the land to raise it above sea level. For example, there are at least five levels of stones beneath the existing Piazza San Marco.

A number of changes made to the lagoon in the 20th century, however, made the city more vulnerable to flooding. For example, until the practice was halted in the 1970s, industrial plants on the mainland removed groundwater from Venice to use in their production cycle, causing the city to sink at an accelerated rate.

Deep channels were dug into the lagoon so the cruise liners and oil tankers, so detested by the Venetians, could be accommodated – but that is another story.

However, the main cause of flooding today is not so much that Venice is sinking (it is) but that sea levels are rising – the result of climate change.

The net effect is that the city floods more frequently and more severely. Although there has not been a flood as devastating as the one that occurred in 1966 when the water level rose a record 76.4 inches, last year over 75 percent of the city flooded with saltwater, eating away at the canal walls and the foundations of buildings.

The lowest point in the city is Piazza San Marco, a mere 31-inches above sea level. It is the first to flood – over 200 times a year. Even when there is no Acqua Alta, it is common to see salt water gurgling up from the drains at high tide, leaving pools of water across the Piazza that Napoleon is said to have called “The Drawing Room of Europe.”

When the waters are high enough, city workers position long wooden walkways in the most “at risk” areas so that people can keep their feet dry. But the walkways are only two feet high and of limited use when the water is higher.

There seems only one hope for Venice – the construction of a series of underwater floodgates that are raised to keep out the high tides. Originally proposed in 1972, a Consortium of construction companies started construction of MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromecanico) in 1982. It is somewhat ironic that MOSE is the Italian name for Moses, of Red Sea-parting fame. It was supposed to be finished in 1995 at a cost of $2.1 billion. Thirty years later the costs have risen to $7.8 billion, and it is unlikely to be operational until 2018 or perhaps even 2020. Apart from the usual bureaucratic delays endemic to doing business in Italy, in 2014 an investigation into corruption led to the arrest of 35 individuals involved in the project, including members of the Venetian Government.

The premise of the project is similar to London’s Tidal Barrier. Seventy-eight steel gates, resting on the bottom of the lagoon at strategic locations fill with compressed air and rise to meet the incoming sea. Once the danger of flooding has passed, the gates refill with water and sink back down into the lagoon.

A central control center is already operational in a converted chapel in the Arsenale where staff members monitor charts and diagrams as well as cameras installed on the gates and determine when they should be opened and closed.

Multi colored flood boots, Venice

Visitors coping with High Waters

Environmentalists and Venetians are skeptical, but there doesn’t seem to be a better solution, bearing in mind that the MOSE will only protect the city from tides of up to 3 meters (about 10 feet) for about 100 years. Presumably, in that time humanity will have come up with a different, more permanent solution. As John Keats once wrote, “if the thought of Venice sinking captures the imagination, then it should be a wake-up call to save the city as an essential basis of the civilization we cherish.”

If you happen to visit Venice between November and April and hear a siren, find your way to higher ground since this is the signal that the Acqua Alta is about to engulf the city. Fortunately, it only lasts a few hours until the tide has peaked and then it seeps away until the next time.


Venetians keep a close eye on the weather and the tide tables. Although most of the following websites are in Italian, it is possible to get the gist of the information. Check www.comune.venezia.it/maree/ for the 3-day forecast. You can also call 39-041-242-2996 for recorded information in Italian.

You don’t need to pack waterproof boots. The local merchants do a booming business selling multicolored knee-high plastic pull-on boots. Expect to pay anywhere from 6 to 10 euros depending on how close you are to St. Mark’s Square.


There are a number of organizations which accept contributions for the preservation of Venice. The UK based Venice in Peril is interesting because of the number of projects they sponsor. www.veniceinperil.org



Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

Burano’s Unique Art

The brightly colored houses in Burano, Venice, Italy

The brightly colored houses in Burano, Venice, Italy

One thing is certain. Many of the ‘arts and crafts’ considered of importance to our ancestors are fading into oblivion or slowly being forgotten in the age of modernity. Although small pockets of adherents still continue to practice their skills, by and large the general population may not even know that the ‘art’ (or craft) exists. Take lace making for instance. This is an ancient tradition dating back to the 14th century when noblewomen would sit for hours plying their needles to produce exquisite pieces of intertwined cotton or silk. It can still be found, on the Venetian Island of Burano.

An antique lace wedding dress in Burano, Italy

An antique lace wedding dress in Burano, Italy

Burano is a small collection of islands about 3 miles northeast of Venice, a 30-40 minute vaporetto (water taxi) trip from Saint Mark’s Square. The residents of Burano like color. Their houses are a rainbow of colorful hues — yellow, orange, lavender, pink, green, blue — giving the island a very cheerful appearance in the bright sunlight.

Historically, men on Burano fished; women made lace and have done so since the 14th century although the art itself has even more ancient roots. Legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci brought samples of handmade lace to Venice from the town of Lefkara in Greece. It quickly became the favorite of European royalty and the nobility.

The wife of the Venetian Doge, Morosina Morosini, was so fond of lace clothing that she established a workshop on Burano in the 1300s to ensure  a steady supply. Today it continues to be one of the few remaining places where lace is produced as it has been for generations. The lace is made in limited quantities by a group of older ladies who meet in a sewing circle. The design is etched onto a stack of five layers of thin tissue paper. It can take six women, each doing a different stitch, up to 20 days to finish a small piece of lace. When it is done, the paper is torn away leaving only a delicate cobweb of lace which is incorporated into a larger piece of work.

Sadly, much of the lace sold in Burano is imported and machine-made. To see (and buy) traditional handmade lace, visit the Museo del Merletto or Lace Museum, in the old lace-making school (Scuola di Merletti) which contains an impressive collection of Venetian and Burano lace, some it dating to the 16th century. It is here that the sewing circle meets, amongst the tools of lace-making to continue the tradition of generations.

Lace fans in Burano, Italy

Lace fans in Burano, Italy

To get to Burano from Venice, take the LN (Lagoon North) vaporetto line from the Fondamenta Nuova stop on the main island of Venice to Burano (www.venicewelcome.com/actv/vaportetto.htm), Museo del Merletto is at Piazza Garibaldi 1, Burano; www.museiciviciveneziani.it) Closed on Tuesdays.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Diana Russler

Under the Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy

The Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy

The Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy

The Rialto Bridge, in the heart of Venice, is probably the most iconic image of this enchanting city.  With its 24-foot high arch designed to allow galleys to sail under it and its 12,000 wooden pilings, walking across it transports you to another age. Built in 1588, it spans the Grand Canal with three walkways that are always thronged with tourists and residents. But this area has been the center of commerce for an even longer time. The Open air market under the arches of the bridge has been here since the 11th century.

Produce arrives at the market on boards, Rialto, Venice

Produce arrives at the market on boards, Rialto, Venice

This colorful, unique market is the perfect place to feel the atmosphere and heart of Venice. Visit during Carnevale, and you are greeted by merchants attired in costume from Medieval times, vying with each other to attract customers amongst the pile of produce and fish. But even at other times the hustle and bustle, the colors and the aromas will fascinate you.

The activity starts before dawn when barges steam up the Grand Canal carrying the produce and goods for the market. They pull up along the walls of the market where men with hand carts wait to unload them and wheel the goods to the stalls where they are washed, polished, buffed and arranged artistically to tempt the discerning shopper.

The market is divided into two parts; the Erberia is the vegetable market and the Pescheria is the fish market. As you walk through the stalls of the Erberia, an enormous variety of brightly colored, neatly arranged produce (all grown in the neighboring areas or on one of Venice’s 117 islands) tempt you. Blood red oranges heaped carelessly, green and purple artichokes nestled side by side, mushrooms of every color and description in wooden boxes; colorful chili peppers overflowing from cones of white paper; bright orange melons; dark purple plums; juicy nectaries, the list goes on and on.

Piles of melons at the Venice market, Rialto

Piles of melons at the Venice market, Rialto

In the Pescheria, rows and rows of stands with freshly caught fish are arranged with their heads pointing to the bridge; crustaceans of every description are laid out symmetrically; squid and eels caught that morning in the Adriatic Sea or Lagoon look almost alive, their colors accentuated by the reflections in the crushed ice on which they are laid.

Beyond the produce and fish, you will find butchers, bakers, cheese shops with an enormous variety of creamy, yellow fresh cheeses; and wine shops filled with bottles of the local wine as well as colorful bottles of exotic liqueurs.  The air is filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread, aromatic basil and the briny scent of the sea. As you walk through the stalls, vendors will offer you a sample of deep purple figs or bright red tomatoes (you may never want to eat a supermarket tomato again after tasting these). At the cheese counter take a sliver of fresh Parmiggiano (Parmesan) cheese to savor with a handful of grapes. Everywhere you turn you will be tempted. But don’t tarry. By noon the produce is sold and the market is closed for another day.

Piles of eels for sale at the Pescheria Rialto market, Venice

Piles of eels for sale at the Pescheria Rialto market, Venice

The Rialto market is the only place to shop for food if you are renting an apartment in Venice. But even if you are staying in a hotel, enjoy the spectacle and the samples and who knows? Your supper may be in the eye of those Venetian chefs who buy at this market too

To get to the Rialto Bridge and the market, take the No 1 Vaporetto (water bus) and get off at the Rialto stop. Cross the bridge and go to the right on the opposite bank where you will find the Market. It is open from Monday to Saturday, 0800 to 1200 except for the Pescheria which is open Tuesday to Saturday from 0800 to 1200.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Diana Russler