Twelve solid days of costumed chaos awaits during the Carnival of Venice, an annual event that combines the proper traditions of baroque dress with the inherent nuttiness of Brazil's own Carnival celebrations.
As with other Carnival festivities that take place all over the world, the Carnival of Venice (Carnevale di Venezia) begins two Fridays before Ash Wednesday and lasts until Fat Tuesday. As such, Carnival of Venice is always in February and/or March.
Free-to-attend and attracting upwards of three million people every year, Carnival of Venice sees the streets awash in stunning costumed-revelers, and begins with a large procession through the city called La Festa delle Marie.
The Carnival of Venice costumes are famous the world over, and include ornate gowns and flowing cloaks, as well as many different masks that can be purchased on the cheap from temporary stalls or for quite a bit of money from celebrated artisans who still make them painstakingly by hand.
The day after the first procession marks the official opening of the Carnival of Venice, with another masked crowd venturing from Piazza San Marco in the afternoon and marching through the streets. Following that there are jousts and mock-military tournaments, as well as the Carnival of Venice's most famous event, the Gran Ballo delle Maschere, a traditional costume ball that takes place at a different location each year.
No matter where it is held, this Grand Masked Ball invariably sets up inside some grand Venetian palace, and anyone with the proper costume and mask is allowed in…so long as they know how to dance the quadrilles and other centuries-old moves required inside.
That isn't all the Carnival of Venice has in store, however. Tons of musical and theatrical performances take over Piazza San Marco and several other locations throughout the city, and there's also the insanity of the Calcio storico - normally held over the Carnival of Venice's first weekend - which essentially combines football with bare-knuckle boxing in a district-wide competition where all the participants don period garb and beat each other senseless trying to get a ball across the field.
The Carnival of Venice rounds out with a stunning procession of decorated boats and gondolas making their way down the Grand Canal, all of which make it a signature Venice event as popular with longtime locals as wide-eyed first-time visitors.
Although its roots date back several centuries, no one is entirely sure why the wearing of masks became a staple of the Carnival of Venice. One thing is certain, however: it's probably a good idea that past events like bull-baiting and firing live dogs out of canons have been taken off the schedule.
Photos: Bruno Valsangiacomo