The Heart and Soul of Carnevale di Venezia

san marco square venice

The rain hammers down with undying persistence filling the marble streets with standing water, like a bathtub. Around every street corner a looming masked faced stares, as if right through you. There is laughter and exuberant cheersing in the streets. Drinks slosh out of goblets to join the calf-deep water that coats the city floor. The canals are so full that the rainwater from the city and the canal water have become one, mixing to hide staircases and flow freely in and out of restaurants.  The sound of music floats from the piazzas and down the streets. Masked people are dancing in the rain, umbrellas long forgotten, boots entirely drenched. Some have escaped the downpour to attend opulent balls and theatrical performances, but the real celebration is here, in the streets where the heart of Carnevale beats among the thousands of revelers.

The paper mâché from my mask is getting soggy and there is a slight taste of sweet glue mixing with the deep red wine that seems to refill itself in my cup. Five giant masked cats walk by, each in a different color, each with a long feathery boa trailing behind them. Beautiful women with roses and red lipstick wave their long cigarettes, unfazed that the bottoms of their intricate, gorgeous ball gowns suspend around them in the pooled water. Windows are thrown open and bartenders hand out glasses of sweet liquor and tapas in a flurry of movement. Barrels of wine are propped against storefronts, on countertops and balanced on windowsills—an offering to the thousands of masked merrymakers. 

We continue dancing through the city, stopping only for a drink or to watch a performance in the many piazzas. People take refuge from the flooded streets on the bridges. Rialto Bridge is a swarm of people moving up and over the Grand Canal in a chaotic, yet gentle mass. People drag boom boxes behind them starting mini parties as they walk by, vendors hand out sweet nuts, candies and offer a cheers, kids snake through the crowd at knee level. The world they see is full of pant legs and dress skirts, but they are able to move freely in ways that I am not.

The night continues, we are lost, of course we are lost, aren’t you always lost in Venice? That is the beauty of it. It is time for a macchiato and a late-night sweet pastel. We squeeze into a charmingly small café between three-cornered hats and white silk headpieces dripping with shells and flowers. Water seeps under the doorframe. People’s laughter fog the café windows. Time is irrelevant here; everyone has the same purpose tonight. Back on the streets, the melodic sounds of an orchestra suspend in the air. A rove of costumed rabbits perform a cotillion, was that the Canadian curling team that just walked by sweeping a Roomba along with them? Yes it was. Everyone is friendly, we are invited to party after party, swept from the streets into people’s homes and handed a drink, dancing the night away with a thousand other disguised friends.

canadian curling team
canadian curling team with roomba

With the addition of masks and costume, anonymity serves as a veil of friendship. Who you are or where you’re from doesn’t matter on this night. You are Venice. You are Carnevale. You contribute to the shared heartbeat of this ancient city—the soul of Venice lives inside you for the next twenty-four hours.

lost in venice
grand canal venice
venice italy
venice italy