Elaborate, colorful, creative costumes — what photographer could resist an opportunity to photograph Carnival? I am not sure how long I have been aware of Carnival, but it has always been a curiosity to me. Interestingly enough, my social media news feeds stirred curiosity with my followers. I discovered there were a good many of my followers who are unfamiliar with the activities of Carnival. Photographing Venice’s Carnival is an exciting experience! Let’s explore Venice’s Carnival from a photographer’s lens.
History of Venice’s Carnival
Carnival began in 1162 as a victory celebration. The people gathered in St. Mark’s (San Marco) Square to celebrate the victory by dancing and socializing. Many wore masks to protect their identity so there was no division in class and all could enjoy in the celebration. In 1797, when the Republic fell to Napoleon, he banned Carnival. This ban lasted two centuries and in 1979 the city of Venice brought back the traditions of Carnival. Carnival lasts approximately two weeks and ends on the Tuesday (Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday) before Ash Wednesday. During Carnival, there are many events, parades, gatherings and opportunities to see the elaborate costumes.
Modern day Carnival
As a first time visitor to Venice and Carnival, I did not know what to expect. We arrived a few days ahead of the group we were meeting and explored Venice and the nearby town of Padua. I had been told that masks (what we call the participants) would be everywhere. After two days of not seeing any, I wondered if it was not something as grand as I had imagined. The key is knowing when and where the masks will be.
Early morning, before sunrise, the masks gather along the shoreline at St. Mark’s Square. The light is absolutely beautiful in the early hours. As the minutes go by, more masks and photographers arrive. It can become crowded very quickly. The more elaborate the costume, the more photographers appear. Photographing Venice’s Carnival is comparable to photographing a major news event or a sporting event. Needless to say, it gets hectic with all of the crowds because everyone wants the best position and best photograph.
In the evening, right before sunset, the masks gather at San Giorgio. Again, the light is beautiful and you have Venice in the background. Plus, as a bonus, you have a church with great walls and stairs to pose the models on.
The weather can be unpredictable. Bring layers. Mornings and evenings are cool; the afternoons will warm up a bit. Since we were there February 8 – 18, most of the days warmed up into the mid to upper 50’s. The earlier you are there in February the cooler it will be.
Where to stay
If you are going to take full advantage of all that Carnival has to offer, you will need to stay on the island of Venice. AirBnB has plenty of great options, depending on how many people you are traveling with. There are many hotels scattered throughout Venice. The star ratings can be misleading; the stars indicate amenities at the lodging and not necessarily the quality of the establishment. Expect to pay more than $200/night, but to stay close to the festivities; it’s worth it. Otherwise, you will be facing early and possibly lengthy commutes to arrive before sunrise.
Personally, I would choose to a location close to St. Mark’s Square (San Marco). This location provides convenient access to the vaporetti stops and provides a closer proximity to the activities.
Booking air transportation as early as possible is wise. Venice has an airport that is about a 30 minute drive from the island. There are several options to get to Venice. Choices for transportation from the airport are, bus to the train station, vaporetti (water bus), water taxi and private taxi (listed in order of lower to higher cost). For 10 Euros (with conversion rates, it was about $10) we took a bus so we could stow our luggage underneath. There are self-serve kiosks in baggage claim to purchase your transportation tickets.
Once we arrived at the train station, it was a short walk over a bridge to the vaporetti stop to continue our journey.
Getting around Venice
Before leaving for Venice, make sure you have a pair of comfortable shoes. You will be walking, everywhere. On a positive note, you do not have automobile traffic to deal with. All of Venice is pedestrian traffic. Venice is an island with many canals. Because of this, there are bridges everywhere. The bridges are arched so there are stairs. You tend to mark distance by how many bridges you will cross. When going to San Giorgio you will take a water bus (vaporetti). Purchasing a multi-day pass is a great idea if you are going to be traveling to many places away from the center of Venice.
You will certainly want to plan a day to visit Burano (the Colorful Island) and Murano (shops with locally made glassware). The masks will go to Burano to pose in front of the colorful buildings. Above all, allow yourself a little down time to be creative. Burano’s colorful buildings beckon you to photograph abstract reflections in the canals. Also, make sure you to take the time for a gondola ride through the canals in Venice.
You are in an area with great photographic opportunities. Take a little down time away from the festivities and explore the city and the surrounding islands. Doorways, windows, bridges and unique architecture awaits. It is easy to find beauty to photograph. While photographing the models is fun, it can become overwhelming as new ones arrive daily. The possibility of capturing them all is impossible. Enjoy the beauty of Venice and the surrounding areas.
To be continued…
In Part 2, I will discuss equipment, photo processing techniques, and what changes I would make in the future when photographing Venice’s Carnival.
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