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Venice Carnival 2023, Italy by Diann C. Johnson

They come from all over Europe. Dressed in velvet, lace and jewels, “the masks,” as they are known, populate the streets, squares and canals of Venice. Once a year, during the 2-week period known as Carnevale, their historic, creative costumes help bring this enchanting city to life. Call it a Baroque-era version of Comic-con, it attracts both participants and spectators alike.

  

In between appearances, they can be seen gliding carefully through the narrow backstreets of the city – turning sideways to allow clearance of their wide hoop skirts. They are often spotted quietly crossing the many canals on vaporettos or gondolas. Occasionally you encounter tables full of them at bistros, nibbling on cicchetti and sipping Aperol Spritzes.

Their enigmatic presence raises so many questions: who are they? Where did they come from? How do they do this? Why? You hear them speak in many languages and with varying accents, suggesting this may be a large community of enthusiasts. According to one participant there are clubs throughout Europe where these costumers participate in Venetian style Carnival celebrations. This year most participants were from France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, the U.K. and, of course, Italy.

A jester near San Marco

Some of the more elaborate period costumes on display can cost as much as $5,000 and take a year to produce. They may have many layers of expensive fabric, inlaid costume jewels, sequins and feathers, as well as large headdresses or complicated props. A lot of costumers wear contrasting makeup and brightly colored contacts underneath their masks. Many of the “masks” return each year with a new costume and some with several. Locals have noticed a slight changeover to a new, younger generation of maskers after the pandemic. 

Photographing Carnevale
This trip had been on my list for awhile. A relative of mine had been involved with Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I went to see her and her Krewe of Muses parade in 2017.  I loved the bead catching experience there, along with the colorful costumes and floats. I had always wanted to see the famed costumes of Venice Carnival, photos of which were popular in my youth. It would be my fifth time in Venice, but my first during Carnevale.

Mardi Gras Krewe of Muses parade float, 2017.

I photograph a lot of nature and wildlife. I also like to photograph festivals – particularly those which are tied to the culture and history of a location and provide a sense of place. I love everything about this city but sometimes even while walking through a festively lit St Marks Square at night, listening to a mistral playing Musetta’s Waltz by Puccini, I have had difficulty connecting to its romantic past. Carnevale bridged that gap.

About Carnevale di Venezia
The annual celebration of Carnevale is a very old tradition, dating back almost a thousand years. In Roman Catholic history, Carnival is the festive period leading up to the austerity of Lent. It culminates in Fat Tuesday, celebrated as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Other countries also have well known Carnival festivals, such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Looking toward Santa Maria della Salute and the Grand Canal at sunset.

With early origins in Greek Bacchanalia and Roman Saturnalia festivals, Carnevale di Venezia is thought to have begun after a war victory in 1162. It was made official in 1296, just after famous Venetian Marco Polo’s historic voyages to the far east. Over the years it became associated with celebration, masquerade and equality. It reached its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, during the days of Casanova, which is why so many costumes stem from this era. It stopped after the Napoleonic invasion and subsequent fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797 and only officially returned to Venice recently in 1979.
 
A costumer with gondolas and San Giorgio Maggiore island in the background.
 

Many of the iconic masks associated with Carnevale are based on characters from the Commedia Dell’Arte – Northern Italian improv theater from the Middle Ages. These masks are known as Harlequin, Colombina, Bauta, Punchinello and Pantalone. There is also the Scaramouche and Pierrot characters – similar to jester or mime costumes. There is also a growing interest in modern and steampunk costumes each year.

 “Pierrot” Style Costume from the Commedia dell’Arte. 

These wonderful costumers are fascinating photographic subjects. Combined with the unique backdrop of Venice, it is a photographer’s dream in both foreground portraiture and background landscape. Most masks are also skilled models, posing well for photographers. It’s an excellent opportunity to add some interesting portrait, cultural and travel photography to your portfolio. These photos were all taken by me in 2023. Join us on a photography workshop here in 2024.

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