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What Mardi Gras is to New Orleans and Carnaval to Rio, Carnevale is to Venice. For the 12 days leading up to quaresima (Lent), the city is given over to feasting and celebration, with more than half a million people attending masquerade balls, historical processions, concerts, plays, street performances, fashion shows, and all other manner of revelry.
The first record of Carnevale dates back to 1097, but it was in the 18th century that Venice earned its international reputation as the "city of Carnevale." During that era the partying began after Epiphany (January 6) and transformed the city for over a month into one ongoing, decadent masquerade. After the Republic's fall in 1797, the tradition of Carnevale was abandoned.
Festivities were revived in the 1970s, when locals began taking to the calli and campi for impromptu celebrations as a way to beat the winter doldrums. It wasn't long before events became more elaborate, emulating their 18th-century predecessors (with encouragement from the tourism industry). The trademark feature of present-day Carnevale is the bauta costume, worn by would-be Casanovas (and their would-be conquests).
Many of Carnevale's costume balls are open to the public—but they come with an extravagant price tag, and the most popular of them need to be booked in advance. Balls start at roughly €295 per person, dinner included, and though you can rent a standard costume for €200-€400 (not including shoes or mask), the most elaborate attire can cost much more.
Ballo del Doge (041/5233851 041/5287543 www.ballodeldoge.com) is one of the most exclusive (and expensive) events, held at Palazzo Pisani-Moretta the last Saturday of Carnevale.
See www.meetingeurope.com for the Ballo Tiepolo (041/524668 041/722285), which also takes place in the Tiepolo-frescoed ballroom of Pisani-Moretta—along with many more held in a variety of the city's more lavish palaces.
You don't have to blow the bank on a masquerade ball in order to take part in Carnevale—many people go simply for the exuberant street life. Be aware, though, that the crowds are enormous, and ball or no ball, prices for everything absolutely skyrocket.
Carnevale events and schedules change from year to year. If you want to attend, first check out these resources:
Consorzio Comitato per il Carnevale di Venezia (P041/717065, 041/2510811 during Carnevale www.meetingeurope.com) is one of the primary event organizers.
Venezia Marketing & Eventi (www.carnevale.venezia.it) hosts the official Web site for Carnevale and other events.
The tourist office (041/5298711 www.turismovenezia.it) has detailed information about daily events.
A Guest in Venice (www.aguestinvenice.com) gives free advertising to public and private events, and as a result it's one of the most complete—if potentially overwhelming—Carnevale guides.
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