Venice's most special event is the yearly pre-Lenten Carnevale (tel. 041-241-0570; www.carnivalofvenice.com), a 2-week theatrical resuscitation of the 18th-century bacchanalia that drew tourists during the final heyday of the Serene Republic. Most of today's Carnevale-related events, masked balls, and costumes evoke that time. Many of the concerts around town are free, when baroque to samba to gospel to Dixieland jazz music fills the piazze and byways; check with the tourist office for a list of events.
The masked balls are often private; those where (exorbitantly priced) tickets are available are sumptuous, with candlelit banquets calling for extravagant costumes you can rent by the day from special shops. If you can score tickets, splurge 260€ ($325) per person on the Ballo del Doge, or Doge's Ball (tel. 041-523-3851; www.ballodeldoge.com). They throw a real jet-set party (accessible to all) in the 16th-century Palazzo Pisani-Moretta on the Grand Canal (between the Rialto and the Foscari), sumptuously outfitted with Tiepolo frescoes and all the other accouterments of 18th-century Venetian style. Different ballrooms feature minuets, waltzes, baroque chamber orchestras -- there's even a modern disco (acoustically self-contained) -- all catered by posh Do Forni restaurant. Those not invited to any ball will be just as happy having their face painted and watching the ongoing street theater from a ringside cafe. There's a daily market of Carnevale masks and costumes on Campo Santo Stefano (10 a.m. - 10 p.m.).
Carnevale builds for 10 days until the big blowout, Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday for Mardi Gras), when fireworks illuminate the Grand Canal, and Piazza San Marco is turned into a giant open-air ballroom for the masses. Book your hotel months ahead, especially for the 2 weekends prior to Shrove Tuesday.
The Voga Longa (literally "long row"), a 30km (19-mile) rowing "race" from San Marco to Burano and back again, has been enthusiastically embraced since its inception in 1975, following the city's effort to keep alive the centuries-old heritage of the regatta. It takes place on a Sunday in mid-May; for exact dates, consult the tourist office. It's a colorful event and a great excuse to party, plus every local seems to have a relative or next-door neighbor competing.
Stupendous fireworks light the night sky during the Festa del Redentore, on the third Saturday and Sunday in July. This celebration marking the July 1576 lifting of a plague that had gripped the city is centered around the Palladio-designed Chiesa del Redentore (Church of the Redeemer) on the island of Giudecca. A bridge of boats across the Giudecca Canal links the church with the banks of Le Zattere in Dorsoduro, and hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes fill the Giudecca. It's one big, floating festa until night descends and an awesome half-hour spettacolo of fireworks fills the sky.
The Venice International Film Festival, in late August and early September, is the most respected celebration of celluloid in Europe after Cannes. Films from all over the world are shown in the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido as well as at various venues -- and occasionally in some of the campi. Ticket prices vary, but those for the less sought-after films are usually modest.
Venice hosts the latest in modern and contemporary painting and sculpture from dozens of countries during the prestigious Biennale d'Arte (tel. 041-521-8846 or 041-271-9005; www.labiennale.org), one of the world's top international modern-art shows. It fills the pavilions of the public gardens at the east end of Castello and in the Arsenale from late May to October every odd-numbered year. In the past, awards have gone to Jackson Pollock, Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, and Federico Fellini, among others. Tickets (10€/$13) can be reserved online or by calling tel. 199-199-100 in Italy.
The Regata Storica that takes place on the Grand Canal on the first Sunday in September is an extravagant seagoing parade in historic costume as well as a genuine regatta. Just about every seaworthy gondola, richly decorated for the occasion and piloted by gondolieri in colorful livery, participates in the opening cavalcade. The aquatic parade is followed by three regattas along the Grand Canal. You can buy grandstand tickets through the tourist office or come early and find a piece of embankment near the Rialto Bridge for the best seats in town.
Other notable events include Festa della Salute on November 21, when a pontoon bridge is erected across the Grand Canal to connect the churches of La Salute and Santa Maria del Giglio, commemorating delivery from another plague in 1630. The Festa della Sensa, on the Sunday following Ascension Day in May, reenacts the ancient ceremony when the doge would wed Venice to the sea. April 25 is a local holiday, the feast day of Saint Mark, beloved patron saint of Venice and of the ancient republic. A special High Mass is celebrated in the Basilica of San Marco, and Venetians exchange roses with those they love.
Finally, the ultimate anomaly: Venice's annual October Maratona (Marathon), starting at Villa Pisani on the mainland and ending up along the Zattere for a finish at the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the tip of Dorsoduro. It's usually held the last Sunday of October.
Carnevale a Venezia
Venetians once more are taking to the open piazzas and streets for the pre-Lenten holiday of Carnevale. The festival traditionally was the celebration preceding Lent, the period of penitence and abstinence prior to Easter; its name is derived from the Latin carnem levare, meaning "to take meat away."
Today, Carnevale lasts no more than 5 to 10 days and culminates in the Friday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. In the 18th-century heyday of Carnevale in La Serenissima Republic, well-heeled revelers came from all over Europe to take part in festivities that began months prior to Lent and crescendoed until their raucous climax at midnight on Shrove Tuesday. As the Venetian economy declined, and its colonies and trading posts fell to other powers, the Republic of Venice in its swan song turned to fantasy and escapism. The faster its decline, the longer, and more licentious, became its anything-goes merrymaking. Masks became ubiquitous, affording anonymity and the pardoning of a thousand sins. Masks permitted the fishmonger to attend the ball and dance with the baroness, the properly married to carry on as if they were not. The doges condemned it and the popes denounced it, but nothing could dampen the Venetian Carnevale spirit until Napoléon arrived in 1797 and put an end to the festivities.
Resuscitated in 1980 by local tourism powers to fill the empty winter months when tourism comes to a screeching halt, Carnevale is calmer nowadays, though just barely. The born-again festival got off to a shaky start, met at first with indifference and skepticism, but in the years since has grown in popularity and been embraced by the locals. In the 1980s, Carnevale attracted an onslaught of what was seemingly the entire student population of Europe, backpacking young people who slept in the piazzas and train station. Politicians and city officials adopted a middle-of-the-road policy that helped establish Carnevale's image as neither a backpacker's free-for-all outdoor party nor a continuation of the exclusive private balls in the Grand Canal palazzi available to a very few.
Carnevale is now a harlequin patchwork of musical and cultural events, many of them free of charge, which appeals to all ages, tastes, nationalities, and budgets. At any given moment, musical events are staged in any of the city's dozens of piazzas -- from reggae and zydeco to jazz to baroque. Special art exhibits are mounted at museums and galleries. The recent involvement of international corporate commercial sponsors has met with a mixed reception, although it seems to be the direction of the future.
Carnevale is not for those who dislike crowds. Indeed, the crowds are what it's all about. All of Venice becomes a stage. Whether you spend months creating an extravagant costume, or grab one from the countless stands set up about the town, Carnevale is about giving in to the spontaneity of magic and surprise around every corner, the mystery behind every mask. Masks and costumes are everywhere, though you won't see anything along the lines of Teletubbies or Zorro. Emphasis is on the historical, for Venice's Carnevale is the chance to relive the glory days of the 1700s when Venetian life was at its most extravagant. Groups travel in coordinated getups that range from a contemporary passel of Felliniesque clowns to the court of the Sun King in all its wigged-out, over-the-top, drag-queen glory. There are the three musketeers riding the vaporetto; your waiter appears dressed as a nun; sitting alone on the church steps is a Romeo waiting for his Juliet; late at night, crossing a small, deserted campo, a young, laughing couple appears out of a gray mist in a cloud of crinoline and sparkles, and then disappears down a small alley. The places to be seen in costume (only appropriate costumes need apply) are the historical cafes lining the Piazza San Marco, the Florian being the unquestioned command post. Don't expect a window seat unless your costume is straight off the stage of the local opera house.
The city is the perfect venue; Hollywood could not create a more evocative location. This is a celebration of history, art, theater, and drama that one would expect to find in Italy, the land that gave us the Renaissance and Zeffirelli -- and Venice, an ancient and wealthy republic that gave us Casanova and Vivaldi. Venice and Carnevale were made for each other.
For more on what to see and do in Venice, visit our complete guide online at www.frommers.com/destinations/venice.
Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.