top of page

Venice, Italy’s Carnival of Masks & Costumes

By Diane Meader Leibinger

Stepping outside my canal-facing hotel, I have never before experienced such a kaleidoscope of glamor. I am immediately swept into a swirling atmosphere of opulent costumes, gowns, towering wigs, and colorful masks.

It is a magical visual feast of color, elegance, and mystery that transforms the city of Venice, Italy during Carnival. It is one of the most beautiful and centuries-old traditional festivals celebrated. It is famous for its stunning masks and costumes.

The custom of wearing masks allow the people of Venice and participating visitors to adopt a different persona for a short time each year as they endlessly stroll the streets and dance at the various formal balls held throughout the city. The annual festival takes place during the ten days leading up to the Christian day of fasting: Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally, Carnival is the last all-out binge before good Catholics give up all things extravagant for Lent. Carnival is a pre-Lent festival and means `farewell to meat`

According to the earliest records, the Carnival was first held in Venice in the 11th century and consisted of over two months of revelry, until it fell into decline during the 18th century. It was revived in 1979, with great success, with live music in the main squares of the city and various events organized by the tourist board where everyone can join in.

It is a unique opportunity to dress up in a sumptuous costume and mask and parade the streets. Now each year approximately three million visitors watch or join in the festivities, masked balls, and parties all over Venice.

These masks are a centuries-old tradition of Venice, Italy. The masks are typically worn during the Venice Carnival, but have been used on many other occasions in the past. They were usually worn as a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status and this tradition continues today.

Venetian masks are characterized by their ornate design, using intricate decorations, bright colors along with gold and silver. They can be full-face or eye masks.

On every corner you will find small stands or gift shops selling mass produced masks for a few dollars. Rather than buy these, for a truly unique gift to bring home (and wear while in Venice) my suggestion is head into the center of the city and look for the antique workshops or ateliers of a real Venetian artisan who still follows the ancient art of carefully handcrafting masks out of papier-mâché and decorating with satin ribbons.

These shops are mini-museums of mask masterpieces and the owners are friendly and delighted to answer any questions about their artwork. It is visiting one of these mask shops that will offer you many happy memories.

Many of the costumes are historical focused and are similar to the attire of the Venetian noblemen and women of the past. Requiring many hours of handwork, they are excessively adorned with ribbons, jewels(fake), brocade all with an enormous amount of detail.

Many couples and families will be wearing matching or similar colors and patterns to coordinate with each other. The more expensive Venice carnival costumes may cost around $1600 and the masks $20-$60.

Although some of the balls are by invitation only, there are also many offered by the hotels as well. To attend one, a costume and mask is required. There is plenty of choice from a formal ball with dinner and performances; after dinner parties that are part of a formal ball; to a late afternoon cocktail or chocolate event.

Take a trip on a gondola to slowly experience and photograph from a different aspect of Venice. Visit Basilica and St. Mark’s Square, the colorful markets around the Ponte di Rialto. There are plenty of cafés with terraces along the Grand Canal to watch the world parade by.

On Tuesdays take the ferry over to the fishing island of Burano. Many of the Venice carnival professionally adorned participants who come every year spend the day walking around this tiny village in their beautiful costumes and masks.

It is a quiet and less hectic way to enjoy the beauty of their attire and also browse through a number of lovely shops with locally made handicraft items and glass jewelry.

My seven day adventure was spent ambling along narrow calli (streets) and squares or riding in gondolas photographing the sumptuous costumes and masks against the city’s ancient architecture and canals. It turned out to be one of the most amazing photography opportunities I have ever experienced!

Taking place in Venice in February, the dates are slightly different each year, corresponding with approximately two weeks before Ash Wednesday.

costumed group in bright colors at the Carnival
Venetian masks are characterized by their ornate design, using intricate decorations

Be sure to check this year’s exact dates before making any bookings. As this is such a popular event, be sure to book early for hotel and formal balls you wish to attend.

This is one time when everyone is very open to posing for a photograph. They especially appreciate it if you are able to later email them a copy-so be sure to ask for a business card (most of them will have business cards and will be happy to give you one)

Most airlines fly into Venice’s Marco Polo airport. Rather than the tourist water bus, I took a water taxi from the airport to St. Mark’s Square. It is well worth the approximate $40 charge. Both arriving and returning I was lucky enough to have the entire water taxi to myself!

If you do decide to participate in the festivities – costumes to buy or hire will be very expensive in Venice. I met a number of visitors (from US and Germany) who ordered their outfits on-line and brought them in their suitcases. Beware however, they do take up quite a lot of space!

Now is the time to

Dream. Travel. Discover.


bottom of page