For a couple of years now, Carnival festivities in Venice have become a certain routine. We divide them into evergreen events reflecting ancient Carnival festivities just as they were celebrated during the times of the Venetian Republic, and others that change with the season and motto every year.
What did people eat during Carnival at the times of the Serenissima Republic, that is, until 1797? Read our blog post on Medieval dining in Venice here.
As every year since 2015, Carnival in 2020 starts with the Festa Sull’Acqua in Cannaregio on Saturday, 8 February. As the days pass, events shift more towards Piazza San Marco where main events, such as the Volo del Angelo (the Angel’s Flight), the Festa e corteo delle Marie and the Svolo del Leon (flying the Venetian flag) take place.
The second part of events changes every year and has been focussing on food these last three years, and of course, on the motto chosen for a particular year. In 2020, the Motto of the Venice Carnival is: Il Gioco, L’Amore e la Follia (Game, Love and Folly).
While about 5-10 years ago, some Venetian (families) tried to escape the ever more crowded Carnival festivities and onslaught of tourists, one can notice considerable change in 2015: Initiatives were started to involve the Venetians, and so it happens that many of us are now “reconciled with our Carnevale”, and don’t just watch sceptically from a distance.
What “reconciled me” personally was when historical events were added to the Carnival program, and you can now consider Carnival a period when many historical resources leave their book shelves and start telling the real story of Venice: In 2015, the Venetian State Archive hosted guided tours on the Venetian Spice Heritage. In 2019, you could participate in an itinerary led by writer Carla Coco discovering the Rialto Market and its treasures – so full of spice flavors, fruit and fish (click here and read more about the Carnevale di Rialto program).
You might prefer these culinary events even if you don’t like wearing masks :-) We will keep you posted in time for Carnival on this page.
What to see during Carnival. As the past years have revealed a huge success, Piazza San Marco is scheduled to be turned into an open air bottega, a laboratory exhibiting the ancient arts and crafts of Venice. Walking around the Piazza, you can watch glass makers and shoemakers at work (in addition to the Venetian slippers called le furlane, Venice has a great tradition in making fashionable shoes). You can also watch how a gondola, garments and traditional furniture are made.
In short, what you see in Piazza San Marco is taking up the ancient tradition of Venetian Fiere – Fairs. During Carnival and religious festivities and Christmas, the Merchants of Venice and the artisans in town organized wonderful fairs in the Piazza to boast their products in front of their foreign counterparts who had come to town for the occasion from Europe and the Levant. Until 1797, these fairs were even held during war, only the bubonic plague put a temporary halt to Venetian commercial spirit.
What to eat during Carnival. You may all have read and tasted the Venetian Carnival pastries – le fritole = frittelles are just the most well-known amongst them. Venetians love to eat their frittelles fresh and still warm in the morning. Some variants of frittelles look like plain pastries, others come filled with cream and often flavored cream (lemon, orange, rum or zabajon flavor – grandmother makes rose-flavored fritole).
A typical menu during Carnival would taste like this: Pasta e fagioli – Venetian bean soup. Riso al nero di seppia or even sepia-flavored pasta just like you can see in the picture below the title of this article. Anything using red beet (including flavored pasta!). Red dishes like risotto al radicchio. The culinary colors of Carnival are definitely red and black. For a snack, you may like tramezzino al radicchio just like I did in the picture below. And there will be Venetian cookies and lots of cioccolata densa – Venetian thick + hot chocolate. Taste the cicoolata calda at Pasticceria Ballarin which is conveniently located across Pastificio Rizzo‘s outlet (selling flavored pasta) on Salizzada San Crisostomo.
In those early times, Venetians and in particular the children had been participating with joy but were wearing very simple “costumes” that cost next to nothing. Watch the video by Sandro Brandolisio here (by the way, he speaks Venessian – not Italian).
What to do. Set out on a culinary discovery and explore the ancient quarters of the mask makers
ust one word and short video to tell you that not all Venetians are happy the way the Carnival developed. Sandro Brandolisio, an expert in Venetian traditions and book author (amongst others he wrote Quando a Venezia non c’erano i fast food (Venice before the arrival of fast-food chains) tells us of the times when Carnival was taken up again in 1979.
Tips for the Carnival Weekends. As Venice will be very crowded in the afternoon (not in the morning), you could consider venturing away from Piazza San Marco. Cioccolata calda and a classic fritola at Rosa Salva’s on Campo San Zanipolo is always a good idea and from there, it’s just a few minutes to start exploring the Miracoli – San Canciano – Santi Apostoli area. Being the ancient stronghold of the mascareri – the mask makers – this part of Venice is only a decent place to visit during Carnival. On a sunny day, you might even sit and enjoy an aperitivo in the jasmine-overgrown courtyard of Hotel Giorgione. Its bar is located in the sunny courtyard and it’s a secret and favorite spot of mine to relax away from the crowds.
Want to learn the real story of Venetian Carnival, its food, arts and crafts, and traditions? We’ve prepared a 70-page colorful ebook for you here!
In the second part of this little series on Carnival, we will present la lingua delle maschere – the Language of the Masks !