The best Carnival spots in Venice - Citimarks

Carnival life

Detail of the oil painting “Il Ridotto di Palazzo Dandolo a San Moisè” by Francesco Guardi, 1746. The scene was set in Palazzo Dandolo, a palace which hosted Venice’s first gambling-house in 1638. Guardi’s painting is exhibited in Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. Source: Google Arts & Culture.


“The Carnival lasts six months and everyone wears a mask [...] We see processions of people in disguise passing by [...]. There is a strong sense of freedom: princes or artisans, everyone is equal [...]. Men are piling up in human pyramids while harlequins play cards on the square…”
Hippolyte Taine, À Venise - Voyage en Italie, Hachette, 1866
chapter 1

The greedy gambler

At that time, in Venice, there was a famous gambling house known under the name of Ridotto, in which the wealthy nobles had the exclusive privilege of keeping the bank with their own money, and the poor nobles with lenders’ money […].  Every single night, we were there, and, almost always, when we got home, we cursed the game and those who invented it.

This house was only open during the Carnival. We were there, right until its last day, and had no money, nor the means to refill our pockets. Driven by a fatal passion, and supported by hope -that disastrous mirage of gamblers- we sold the last possessions we were left with. This way we managed to collect a dozen sequins, and ran straight back to the Ridotto. In a flash, we lost everything. We returned to our gondola at the canal in a dreadful mood. The gondolier knew me: I had tipped him, generously, many times. Seeing us all sad and silent, he suspected our story and asked me if I needed any money. I thought he was joking and replied in the same tone: “Yes,” I told him, “fifty sequins.”  

He smiled at me, and, without adding a word, took us with his boat, singing, to the Bridge of Sighs. He stepped out of the gondola, asking us to wait for him for a few minutes; when he came back, he slipped the fifty sequins into my hand whispering between his teeth: “This will teach you the goodness of the gondolieri”. I stood thunderstruck. 

But, in view of this money, my temptation got so strong that it did not allow me any reflections inspired by my gentleness at any other time. In my mind, there was only one thought: run to the Ridotto, enter the first living room, approach the banker and place half the sum on one card.

I won the Paroli card game. I went on and played with such enthusiasm that, in less than half an hour, I found my hands full of gold. With my playmate, we ran down the stairs two at a time, went back to my kind gondolier and returned the borrowed money, to which I added a good gratification. I ordered him to row us home. Hardly had I finished emptying my pockets and spreading out the gold on the table when someone knocked at the door: it was the lady’s brother. At the sight of my treasure, he threw himself on it, uttering a howl of joy, and […] asked me: “Did you win this money on cards?” On my positive answer he replied: “Well, please escort my sister and follow me. I will hold the money and you will see the result.”Any resistance would have been useless; I gave in, grumbling and followed him. 

He sat and shuffled the cards; the players soon surrounded us. It was after midnight; all the other bankers had retired. We played with frenzy. The first two rounds were favorable to him: All the gold on the table was piled up in front of his seat. We didn’t dare to speak to him, but gave all the possible signs urging him to stop; in vain: he persisted and started a third round that he couldn’t finish.

Barely half time into the game, his worn-out stroke of luck had turned his back on him and everything was gone. He laid the cards with a marvelous self-assurance, and, seizing his sister’s arm, wished me goodnight.

To say what was going on in my head would be impossible; I retired to an adjoining room called the Chamber of Sighs, populated by unhappy gamblers or spurned lovers who could freely liberate their bad mood there.

Lorenzo da Ponte
Mémoires (1749 – 1838), Henri Jonquères, 1931

The palazzo Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a magnificent Rennaissance palace hosting Venice’s Casino.

chapter 2

Confetti and banderols

We met again at the celebration of the Redeemer. Each Venetian parish magnificently celebrates its patron saint’s day; the entire city goes out to worship the saint and participate in the festivities. The Island of Giudecca, in which the Church of the Redeemer is located, being one of the richest parishes, offers one of the most beautiful festivals.

The portal is decorated with a garland of flowers and fruits; a “bridge” of boats is built on the Giudecca, looking like a floating arm; the whole quay is lined with pastry shops, coffee tents and mobile food stations called frittole, where junior cooks grumble like grotesque demons, in the midst of flames and smoke swirling out of a boiling grease […].

The Austrian government forbids the open air dances; something which, in any other place, would put a halt to the cheerfulness of the festival; fortunately, the Venetians have inexhaustible stocks of joy. Their major sin is gluttony: a talkative and lively gluttony which has nothing in common with the heavy digestion of the English or the Germans; the muscat, low-cost wines of Istria provide a kind of intoxication making people talkative and naughty.

All of these food shops are adorned with foliage, streamers, and colorful paper balloons serving as lanterns. The boats are richly decorated too, especially those of the rich. The paper lanterns are changing shapes: over here, tassels are falling in luminous festoons around a canopy of colorful fabrics; over there, alabaster antique-style vases are lining up around a canopy of a white muslin so transparent it envelops the guests; people are having supper in these boats and, through the gauze, one can see the silverware and gleaming candles mingling with flowers and crystals. Some young fellows dressed as female half-open the curtain walls and spout nonsense to passers-by. A large lantern rises at the prow in the shape of a tripod, a dragon or an Etruscan vase, into which a gondolier, oddly dressed, throws a powder which springs up in red flames and blue sparkles.

All these boats, all these lights throw their reflections in the water, as they are running in all directions along the illuminations of the shore, creating a magical effect.

The simplest gondola where a family of fishermen has a noisy supper is beautiful with its four lanterns swinging over drunken heads, with its prow lantern which, suspended from a spear higher than the others, floats, agitated by the wind, like a golden fruit carried by the waves. 

George Sand
Lettres d’un Voyageur, Michel Lévy Frères, 1857

Masks and costumes of extraordinary craftsmanship at Ca’ Del Sol, a real treasure trove in Venice.

chapter 3

Party life

It is almost in this way that men in this country have managed to support their decadence.

Like her sister Republics of Greece, this beautiful city ended up in a pagan nonchalance and voluptuousness. […] In the 17th century the jig was up.

The city shrank in weakened borders, like another Athens or Corinth, against its powerful military neighbors; it was either neglected or tolerated; […] and therefore its nobles no longer thought of anything but amusing themselves: war and politics receded, like their city, into the background. Venice became gallant and worldly. […] The great era of painting faded away: the contours softened and became round; […] 

The taste became more refined but paler, more attractive but also narrower: this “evening” of the fallen city was as soft and bright as a Venetian sunset.

Along with recklessness, cheerfulness abounded. The memoirs of writers brim with public and private celebrations as do the paintings of that era. One painting shows a ceremonial banquet in a superb room with a gold scalloped ceiling, high gleaming windows and pale crimson curtains; another one shows the doge in a long silk gown dining with the magistrates in purple robes; on another one, we see visitors gliding over the floors with their masks: nothing is more elegant than the exquisite aristocracy with their little feet, frail collars, little three-cornered hats and crumpled skirts of yellow or pearl grey silk. Another painting features a gondola regatta, with the enormous Bucentaure boat floating between Saint Mark and San Giorgio Maggiore, like a Leviathan armored with golden scales. Around him, squadrons of gondolas split the waters with beaks of steel. A cute band of people in domino dresses flit over the paving stone. […]

The Carnival lasts six months and everyone wears a mask: the children, the people who go to the market, the capuchin guardians, even the priests…everyone. We see processions of people in disguise passing by, in costumes of Frenchmen, lawyers, gondoliers, Calabrians, Spanish soldiers, with dances and musical instruments; they are followed by people applauding or whistling. There is a strong sense of freedom: princes or artisans, everyone is equal […]. Men are piling up in human pyramids while harlequins play cards on the square…

Hippolyte Taine
À Venise – Voyage en Italie, Hachette, 1866 

Caffè Florian, located in the Procuratie Nuove of Piazza San Marco, calls for a mandatory stop for a glass of Spritz under the sounds of violins. It was established in 1720 and is the oldest coffee house in continuous operation in Italy, and one of the oldests in the world. The café was frequented by famous writers such as Goldoni, Goethe, Proust, Dickens, as well as Casanova and Lord Byron who were most likely attracted by the fact that Florian was the only café allowing women on its premises.

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chapter 4

Libertinism and nonchalance

In Venice, there are twice as many courtesans as there are in Paris, all of them of charming gentleness. During the carnival, under the arcades of the Procuracies there are as many women lying down as those standing. […] A Procurator in a bathrobe publicly exchanges teasing and joyous remarks at his window with a well-known courtesan who lives opposite him.  

At home, a husband has no problem saying that he is going to dine at his courtesan’s house, and his wife will send whatever he orders there.

On the other hand, a married woman is excused for everything she does. It would be a kind of dishonor for a woman if she was not publicly considered to have a lover. Her husband never accompanies her -if he did, he would look ridiculous: instead, he accepts an escort to take his place. Sometimes this deputy companion is appointed by a contract. In the morning, he will come over and have breakfast with the lady when she gets up; he will help her to dress, drive her everywhere and serve her. At church, if she is very noble, she may have five or six escorts offering the most curious show: one man will be holding her arm, another one her handkerchief, another man her gloves, and yet another escort will be holding her cloak. 

Even nuns have escorts. […] Most of them have been forcibly cloistered and want to live as women of the world. […] They can see who they like, send sweets or bouquets to their friends.

Marriage is considered “a pure civil ceremony that doesn’t bind the conscience”: in a family of several brothers, only one shall get married -the most foolish one- and take care of the family’s duties […]; the others will become escorts for his wife and all are going to live under the same roof. […]

Parents dress their children richly as soon as they can walk. We see infants of five or six years old in black gowns adorned with lace, embellished with gold and silver. They are spoiled to excess; their father does not dare to scold them. At seventeen or eighteen, he shall find a mistress for them. […]

The slackening goes from manners to outfit; we see people coming to the Mass or the square in slippers and dressing gowns under their black coats. A number of destitute nobles live like parasites at the expense of coffee shop owners, for whom they are a plague. […] Music goes from the church to the theatre halls.  […] At the Opera, Gozzi’s melodies weave a diaphanous fabric of gilded daydreams above all this misery. Noble races are beautiful even in their decay… 

Hippolyte Taine
À Venise – Voyage en Italie, Hachette, 1866

chapter 5

Throwing gold out of windows

As soon as I got out of my gondola, a porter took my trunk, my servant brandished my other suitcases, and I, huddled in my coats, headed towards my peaceful house, quite pleased at the idea of finding my warm bed.

As we arrived at my calle (note: street), we found it so crowded with masks and children -utterly delivered to their joy- that passage was impossible.

 -“What the hell is happening?” I asked a passerby.  

– “Today”, he announced to me, “the patrician Bragadin, who has his palace at the end of this street, was designated patriarch of Venice. His appointment is celebrated with great bonfires and celebrations are being held for three days. The city distributes large portions of bread, wine and ducat coins.”

I told myself that If I made a detour via Saint-Eustache and a nearby bridge, I would be able to reach the door of my house. We set off again on a long way, each of us grumbling on his account, and finally ended up reaching my house. To my great surprise, I saw the windows wide open, my house adorned with chandeliers and gleaming with candles; it looked like the Doge’s Palace on a day of great ceremony.

I stayed gaped with my eyes filled with amazement; it took me a good quarter of an hour to regain my senses. I finally succeeded and, with my escort, we approached my door, where I knocked earnestly.

The door opened, and two city guards presented their arms, shouting to me in a resolute tone: 

– Get back, peasants!  Do not enter this house.

– “Excuse me?” I said, half stunned, half scared. “Is that so?” 

–  No entry. Go put on your mask and come to the front door of the Bragadin Palace. There, you may be let in to take part in the event.

 I had regained my usual phlegm.

–  Suppose I own this house and come back from a trip, dead tired and cold. I would have every right to go to my bed, wouldn’t I?  

–  “Ah!… You claim to be the owner?  Wait here until we verify the information.” And they closed the door in my face.

I gazed at my servant and my porter utterly thunderstruck, and they gazed back at me, no less astonished.

After a minute or two, my house’s door opened again and a butler appeared, all laced with gold; he covered me with compliments and invited me to enter. And so I did, no less amazed. 

At the top of the staircase, I asked the courteous man who was the “magician” doing me the honor of moving into my house.

 – “Could it be that you don’t know?” he replied.  

“My master, the patrician Bragadin, foreseeing the appointment of his brother and the space he lacked in his own palace to offer him a great feast, joined his residence to yours with a wooden bridge which we have quickly built: thus, having enough space at his ease, he installed the catering in your house. All this was done with the consent of the appropriate parties. It is through your windows that bread and ducat coins are thrown. However, you can imagine that we made sure to lock your room. If you care to follow me please, I’ll take you there.”

Hear about a consent that I had in no way given, was yet another shock for me; however, I did not wish to argue with a master of ceremonies, so I simply followed him into a living room full of candles, a crowd of masks shouting and having fun, and a considerable number of valets running noisily in all directions.

I followed the hustle and bustle that came from the kitchen: in there, there was an enormous fire, boiling cauldrons, pots and pans; turkeys, quarters of veal, and other meats were turning majestically on a gigantic spit.

Finally, my guide ushered me into my bedroom, which was indeed locked.

 – Can I ask you at what time this tumult will come to an end?

 – In fact, it will go until dawn… But for three full days.

 – I am honored to have been able to please the Bragadin family. Please pay my respects to Their Excellencies. That said, I am going to look for accommodation for these three days of celebration, because I need rest and my sleep is light.

– “Please no!” cried out the butler. “You are at home, and, as you have seen, care has been taken to lock your room. You must sleep in your bed.”  

– You’re too good. I’m not going any the less to the nearest inn.

And off we went again, my porter, my servant, I and my entire luggage, in search of a lodge where I could find some peace. […] 

Anyway, following that curious incident which led me to spend three days and three nights in a Venetian inn -even though I own a few houses in the city- I entered into very friendly relations with the Bragadin family.  

Carlo Gozzi
Memorie inutili, Palese, 1797

Teatro “La Fenice”, Venice’s opera house is one of the most renowned landmarks in the history of opera. La Fenice hosted performances by all of the major bel canto era composers, including Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.

Venice for playful spirits

Discover our favorite stores and museums to feel the playful, Carnival vibes of Venice.