Venice’s Carnevale (w carnivalofvenice.com) occupies the ten days leading up to Lent, finishing on Shrove Tuesday with a masked ball for the glitterati and dancing in the Piazza for the plebs. After falling out of fashion for many years, it was revived in 1979 and is now supported by the city authorities who organize various pageants and performances, beginning with the “Flight of the Angel” from the Campanile. Apart from these events, Carnevale is an endless parade: during the day people don costumes and go to the Piazza to be photographed, while business types do their shopping in the classic white mask, black cloak and tricorn hat. In the evening some congregate in the remoter squares, while those who have spent hundreds of pounds on their costumes install themselves in the windows of Florian and pose. Masks are on sale throughout the year, but special mask and costume shops magically appear during Carnevale, and Campo San Maurizio sprouts a marquee with mask-making demonstrations and a variety of designs for sale.
La Sensa and the Vogalonga
From the twelfth century until the fall of the Republic, Ascension Day was marked by the ceremony of The Marriage of Venice to the Sea, a ritual which was followed by a huge trade-fair called the Fiera della Sensa (Sensa being dialect for Ascension). Today the feast of La Sensa happens on the Sunday after Ascension Day, and features a feeble modern version of the ceremony, plus a gondola regatta. Far more spectacular is the Vogalonga or “long row”, held a week later. Established in 1974, the Vogalonga is open to any crew in any class of rowing boat, and covers a 32km course from the Bacino di San Marco out to Burano and back, with the competitors setting off from in front of the Palazzo Ducale around 9am.
The Venice Biennale (w labiennale.org), set up in 1895 as a showpiece for international contemporary art, is held from June to November of every odd-numbered year. Its permanent site in the Giardini Pubblici has pavilions for about forty countries (the largest for Italy’s representatives), plus a thematic international exhibition. Supplementing this central part are events at venues all over the city: the salt warehouses on the Záttere, for instance, or the Corderie in the Arsenale. In even-numbered years the city hosts an architecture Biennale, a smaller-scale event which usually runs from September to November; this overlaps with a short music Biennale, and is preceded by a two-week dance Biennale (usually in June).
The Film Festival
The Venice Film Festival (w labiennale.org) – the world’s oldest, founded in 1932 – takes place on the Lido every year in late August and/or early September. Tickets are available to the general public on the day before the performance, at the Palazzo del Cinemà and PalaBiennale ticket offices. Any remaining tickets are sold off at PalaGalileo one hour before the screening, but nearly all seats are taken well before then.
The Regata Storica
Held on the first Sunday in September, the Regata Storica is the annual trial of strength and skill for the city’s gondoliers and other expert rowers. It starts with a procession of historic craft along the Canal Grande course, their crews all decked out in period dress, followed by a series of races up the canal. The opening parade is a spectacular affair, and is followed by a race for young rowers in two-oared pupparini; the women come next (in boats called mascarete), followed by a race for canoe-like caorline; and then it’s the men’s race, in specialized two-man racing gondolas called gondolini.
La Festa del Redentore
For Venetians it’s not Carnevale that’s Venice’s quintessential festival – it’s the Festa del Redentore, which marks the end of the plague of 1576. Celebrated on the third Sunday in July and the preceding Saturday, the festa is centred on Palladio’s church of the Redentore, which was built in thanksgiving for the city’s deliverance from that terrible epidemic. On the Saturday the bishop of Venice marks the commencement of the festive weekend by leading a procession to the church, crossing the Giudecca canal on a bridge that’s supported by dozens of boats that are strung across the waterway from the Záttere. By the evening the Bacino di San Marco is clogged with boats, as people row out for a picnic on the lagoon, then at midnight there’s the mother of all firework displays, after which it’s traditional to row to the Lido for the sunrise.
La Festa della Salute
Named after the church of the Salute, the Festa della Salute is a reminder of the plague of 1630–31, which killed one third of the city’s population. The church was built after the outbreak, and every November 21 people process to it over a pontoon bridge across the Canal Grande, to give thanks for good health, or to pray for it.