A black gondola glides up the Grand Canal and docks in front of a 15th century Gothic palace blazing with candles. A masked nobleman in a tricorn hat steps out and offers his hand to his alluring companion, also masked, draped in gold finery. The couple strides through space and time into a sumptuous world that once existed, and, if you dive into the right wormhole, still exists today.
Welcome to the Ballo del Doge inside Palazzo Pisani Moretta, the prime party during Carnival. Inspired by the annual ball of centuries past when the Doge of Venice threw a society bash for the aristocracy, it was brought roaring back to life in 1994 by fashion designer Antonia Sautter, and has been described by Vanity Fair as “one of the most exclusive parties in the world.”
In a city famous for its masks, it may be surprising to learn that the Venice Carnival was only revived about 40 years ago. When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, he banished Carnival to the pages of history books. However, in 1980, the festival made a spectacular comeback, an event wistfully recalled by those old enough to remember.
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Veteran mask-maker Sergio Boldrin, owner of La Bottega dei Mascareri, was a kingpin in the revival. “It was pure energy. Everyone was dancing and playing a role. One night I ran into a group of 50 people dressed as Pulcinella. All of Venice was part of Carnival.”
During the political terrorism of the Years of Lead, the wearing of masks was discouraged. Then in 1979, Venice mayor Mario Rigo determined to formally revive the bacchanal celebrations. Rigo persuaded director Maurizio Scaparro to move La Biennale Theatre Festival from October to February of the following year so it would coincide with Carnival. By then, Aldo Rossi’s famed Theatre of the World had been anchored in the lagoon off Punta della Dogana, modeled after the festive floating theatres of 18th century Venice, “a place where architecture ended and the world of the imagination began.” The stage was set to combat the outside discordance with a joyful world snuggled inside the lagoon.
These elements inspired young Venetians to join the fun, creating masks and costumes that reflected their core identities. It was a cry of freedom that still resonates today in fully orchestrated productions that fling ancient rituals into the present, and draw hundreds of thousands revellers to Venice each year.
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Marisa Convento, one of the few artisans to continue the Impiraressa glass bead craft, created an embroidered bodice for the winner of the Festa delle Marie, the world’s oldest beauty pageant, which originated in 943 A.D. with an emphasis on virtue. “Venice must be a living city. We are building the future based on the highest qualities of the past. Carnival is an international showcase for local Venetian luxuries.”
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The essence of Carnival permeates authentic Venetian products all year long, from fabrics and jewellery to shoes and perfume. Milliner Giuliana Longo has lived in the city all her life, plying the same trade as her mother and grandmother. “Venice is a city of magic. There is alchemy here. The spirit, the light of Carnival has always been present.”
Antonia Sautter says that expressing her heritage through fashion is a gift. “I achieved my dream of opening a tailor’s shop in 1994, the same year the Ballo del Doge was born. It is my mission to keep Venice’s artisanal tradition alive, not just during Carnival but also with weddings, luxury events and my handmade fashion collection. Carnival is an opportunity to break free from how others see us.”
Venice provides the stage to give flight to your fancies, the chance to escape behind a mask and become your secret self. The venerable artist Ludovico De Luigi quipped, “Carnival is a dry cleaner. It gives you back your ego, fresh and new.”
For more on Do, Dine, and Spend in Venice, visit our Destinations page.