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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
IF YOU GO
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/.