‘Like being on a coral reef’: Marine life returns to heart of Venice in Italy’s lockdown

"The flora and fauna of the lagoon have not changed during lockdown. What has changed is our chance to see them," says zoologist Andrea Mangoni, plunging his camera into Venice's normally murky waters to observe life.

'Like being on a coral reef': Marine life returns to heart of Venice in Italy's lockdown
Venice's waters are clearer than they have been in years after six weeks of lockdown. Photo: Marco Sabadin/AFP

A crab tries to grab the intruding lens, jellyfish propel themselves along near the surface, schools of fish swim peacefully by, crustaceans cling to the city's famous jetties, and seaweed of every colour wafts gently on the current.

The coronavirus has emptied Venice of millions of tourists since the beginning of March and its waters are no longer stirred by the thousands of boats, taxis, vaporetti, and gondolas that usually cross it.

IN PHOTOS: Silent squares and clear waters as Venice stands empty

For Mangoni, this is an opportunity to rediscover the very diverse ecosystem that populates the Venice Lagoon. His film of a jellyfish swimming slowly though translucent canal water has gone viral on social media.

“Now we can see 50 or 60 centimetres, and sometimes even a metre from the surface. As a result, we can see animals that were literally hidden in the murky waters.”

Mangoni says he has never seen such clear waters in the 20 years he has worked in Venice.

“The only difference is that some animals that before were relegated to bigger or wider canals in the lagoon can now go as far as in the city centre, since the traffic of gondolas, motorboats and smaller boats has ceased,” he said.

Marco Sigovini, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences of Venice (ISMAR-CNR), says he has seen marine species in the centre of the former city state for the first time.

“Fauna and flora of Venice Lagoon are much more diversified and interesting than what one might think,” he said.

“What decreased in the city is not only traffic with pollution produced by boats, but also the noise, which is another kind of pollution and disturbs many lagoon organisms.”

OPINION: After flooding and coronavirus, is it time Venice stopped relying on tourism?

Nevertheless, he is not surprised at how many jellyfish are being observed. “Over the last 20-30 years jellyfish have increased in numbers generally. They come into the lagoon more and more frequently, particularly at certain times of year, perhaps carried by the current,” he said.

“Normally, there's a lot of traffic so it's likely many of them are often killed.”

Mangoni takes pictures and videos on his way to work and says life in Venice these days is “like being on a coral reef”.

“The number of colours and lifeforms is extraordinary, which makes the lagoon unique,” he said.

But Sigovini does not think much will change long-term for Venetian fauna.

“Most likely these few months of lockdown won't suffice to really change the quality of our ecosystem,” he said. 

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Venice Carnival: What to expect if you’re attending in 2023

After three years of toned-down celebrations, Venice's famous Carnival is finally set to return to its former grandeur. Here’s what you need to know about this year’s edition.

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you're attending in 2023

The historic Venice Carnival – a tradition which dates back to the late 14th century – will be back in all of its splendour this year as the upcoming edition of the festival will be the first one without pandemic-related restrictions since 2019. 

As the undisputed queen of Italian Carnival, Venice will once again put on a full programme of water parades, masked balls, fine dining experiences and street art performances spread over 18 days of sheer carnevale fun.

If you’re planning on taking part in the city’s Carnival celebrations, here’s a quick guide to this year’s main events.

What are the dates?

The Venice Carnival will officially start on Saturday, February 4th with a night parade streaming down the city’s iconic Grand Canal accompanied by music, dance performances and light shows.

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The parade will kick off two weeks of events, unfolding both in the centro storico (city centre) and on the smaller islands of the lagoon.

As always though, celebrations will peak in the six days between giovedì grasso (‘Fat Thursday’, falling on February 16th) and martedì grasso (shrove Tuesday, falling on February 21st). 

A masked reveller wearing a traditional carnival costume In St Mark's Square, Venice

The 2023 Venice Carnival will start with a floating parade down the Grand Canal on February 4th. Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

The most popular and widely anticipated events of the Venice Carnival are scheduled to take place during those days. However, that will also be the time when the city’s calli and squares will be most crowded. 

What are the main events?

Celebrations will start with the above-mentioned floating parade on Saturday, February 4th, and continue on the following day with another water parade involving traditional Venetian vessels and captained by the beloved Pantegana (a boat shaped like a giant sewer rat).

Apart from that, the Festa delle Marie – a historic beauty pageant during which 12 young local women are dressed up in Renaissance costumes, paraded throughout the city, and then subjected to a vote as to which of them makes the best Maria – will start on Saturday, February 11th. 

The winner of the contest will be announced in Saint Mark’s Square on shrove Tuesday, the final day of the festival. 

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Original Signs, a music and dancing show performed on six floating stages set within the iconic Venetian Arsenal (the former seat of the Venetian navy), will begin on Friday, February 10th, with performances running on a nearly daily basis until the end of the festival.

Original Signs will run alongside Original Sinners, a fine dining experience followed by a masked ball at the magnificent Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a 15th century palace facing the Grand Canal which is also the current seat of Venice’s Casino. 

As with Original Signs, the event will be available to the public on multiple dates.

Masked revellers wearing a traditional carnival costume pose in St Mark Square, Venice

The historic ‘Flight of the Angel’ will not take place this year due to ongoing work in St Mark’s Square. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Aside from major events, street art performances, workshops, exhibitions and seminars will take place at various venues across the city for the entire duration of the festival. Some of these require booking in advance, which you can do on the Venice Carnival official website

On a rather sombre note, the Volo dell’Angelo (‘Flight of the Angel’), the traditional ceremony in which a costumed woman ‘flies’ down a cable from the bell tower in Saint Mark’s Square to the centre of the piazza, will not be performed this year due to ongoing repair work

How busy will it be?

The 2023 edition of the Venice Carnival is expected to mark a “final return to normality”, according to local media.  

And, with just a couple of days to go until the official start of the festival, it looks like the floating city is about to experience pre-pandemic numbers of visitors – current estimates indicate that around half a million people will visit the city over Carnival.

According to Claudio Scarpa, president of Venice’s Hoteliers Association, local hotels “will soon be all but fully booked for weekends”, though large numbers of bookings are also being registered on weekdays, especially those in “the last stages of the festival”.

Given the expected turnout, local transport operator ACTV will enhance their services for the entire duration of the Carnival to avoid overcrowding on buses and water buses. 

For more details about the Venice Carnival and bookings, see the festival’s official website