Although accounts on the exact start of the Venice Carnival vary–some attribute it to the 11th century while others claim it began in the 12th–most agree it was a celebration of the incognito. With a mask and a costume, poor and rich alike assumed whatever identity they wished and the disguise afforded them a freedom they didn’t have the rest of the year. So appealing was this anonymity that by the 18th century, many wore masks for as long as six months a year.
When the Republic of Venice fell to Austria in 1797 the new rulers outlawed both the carnival and mask wearing. The fascist government in the 1930s also forbade the celebration with religious roots. But Venetians never lost their appetite for disguise and in the late 1970s–after almost a 200-year break–the carnival was back. Resurrected thanks to the efforts of both costume- and mask-makers, Carnival has since been celebrated every year, drawing as many as three million visitors into the city.
Here's the best way to experience the spirit of Carnival:
Do what Venetians of a bygone era would have done–don a costume and a mask. If you plan on returning year after year, you may want to invest in your own outfit but, if you aren’t ready to commit, you can rent. The city is peppered with ateliers that provide both the clothes and the accessories; you’ll even have an embroidered purse for your cell phone. If you travel with others, you can rent matching costumes.
The 24-hour rental will cost between 244 and 1,833 dollars (200 and 1,500 euros) regardless of whether you patronize Atelier Pietro Longhi, the shop mentioned in Dan Brown’s Inferno, or another, less famous outfit. Masks are extra but are worth purchasing as a memento. Look for a made-in-Venice mask to support the local artisans who brought back the carnival.
Your choice of activities during your day-in-costume depends on your budget. Most official events are gratis but get there early–both going through the security and finding a spot in a big dress can be tricky. If you want to splurge, you can attend a ball or two or buy a fancy cappuccino at the 18th-century Caffé Florian, a Venetian Carnival landmark. If your budget is modest, consider attending a Vivaldi concert by Interpreti Veneziani at Chiesa San Vidal.
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But the best way to experience the carnival is completely free. Once in costume, make your way to Piazza San Marco, find a place, and just stand there. Within moments you’ll turn into a celebrity. Strangers will approach you for a photo, ask you to pose with their children, and hustle for a selfie with you. Your job is to give permission with a perfectly executed Venetian nod: a mixture of a mysterious smile and a graceful, angled head bow. After a while your mouth may hurt and your neck may cramp–no one said being adored was an easy job–but you’ll have the best time of your life. Because what else can beat the freedom of being someone else for a day and the freedom of the incognito?