It’s only noon and already I have bumped into a female unicorn, Romeo, and a cluster of dancing Magic Trees. I’m in Venice and this is Carnival, a time of transformation in which everyone is invited to don a mask and become as fantastical a creation as the baroque palaces, statues, and carvings of the city around them.

In 1789, Arthur Young was struck by the Venetian love of performance: There were seven theaters and all were said to be full during Carnival season. Over two centuries later, for the two weeks before Lent, Venice still becomes a theater without walls, where players and spectators choose their own parts. If you have ever longed to be a star, posing for the flashbulbs of hundreds of photographers, but also to maintain the mystique of complete anonymity, then this is your perfect stage.

Venice in winter has a fierce beauty. The water in the canals is dark teal green: the color of Roman glass or Byzantine marble. The wind off the lagoon is brutal. Emerging onto the wharfs, your face is battered, your body bent to shield yourself from the blast. But the drama of the architecture is exaggerated by the coldness of the light. The Moorish arches and pillars of checkerboard palaces, the white marble-stepped bridges, the flights of angels from the porticos of immense churches all acquire the intensity of visions glimpsed at dusk. The topography of the city—where high-walled streets, often just broad enough for two people to pass, sometimes peter out at the water’s edge, sometimes lead into magnificent squares—makes the experience of walking in Venice one of perpetual doubt and revelation. It is as if the city is a metaphor for the mind: One is constantly aware of what is hidden, as well as what is available to view; one pursues an idea along a dark alley to arrive either at bafflement or wonder.

During Carnival, the strangeness of encounter so intrinsic to Venice is multiplied a thousandfold. You duck beneath an archway and meet the eye of a dragon. A lord and his lady, in lace ruffs, cloaks, and robes stride imperiously out of a pizzeria. I sheltered in a pastry shop to wrap my frozen fingers around a rich hot chocolate. A lady entered behind me in a pink and green crinoline, with a full-face white mask and a pink scarf wrapped around hair and neck. Mask off, the figure lifting a cappuccino was a smiling young man with sideburns. One day I took the ferry to San Michele, the cemetery island of cypresses, where I visited Ezra Pound’s plain grave. As I admired the rows of tombs, a strange party solemnly processed along the gravel walk: a dandy, with topboots, wig, and a beaver hat; then a cluster of women in 1780s costume; and finally a man with a silver-topped cane and a vast purple-lined cloak, beneath whose elaborate veil I could see a flour-white face with a beauty spot. They laid red roses on the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, forming a funeral tableau that might have belonged to an enigmatic dream.

Carnival in 18th-century Venice was an extended period of license where masters and servants, nuns and nymphomaniacs, could exchange roles. The festival also had a strong ritual element of civic renewal: Bulls were sacrificed and the Piazza San Marco, Venice’s focal point, became an amphitheater, lit by artificial fire. Acrobats formed human pyramids, there were Moorish dances, and tests of strength and agility including the “flight of the Turk,” a descent along a wire from the top of the bell tower of St. Mark’s into a boat on the canal. Now, few free civic events remain. There is still a stage in Piazza San Marco, but it features a digital advertising screen. The flight of the Turk has become “the flight of the angel,” in which a pretty actress wafts harmlessly in harness from the campanile to the ground. In truth, Carnival was largely extinct in Venice by the 20th century but was revived in 1979 as a lure for tourists during the winter months.

“But at the beginning it wasn’t just about tourism,” Andrea da Marchi told me. He was an organizer of Carnival events in the 1980s. “At that time,” he said, “reviving Carnival was important because we had just had a terrible era of terrorism where people were afraid to gather in public in large groups.” In the 1980s, participation in Carnival was more local, with young Venetians busking in their neighborhood square.

Sadly, the modern Carnival is driven less by motives of fun than funding. Visitors can buy expensive tickets for organized parties in palazzi, concerts, and pub crawls. But, as da Marchi commented: “Have you ever been to a great party where you had to pay an entrance fee?” For the most part, then, carnivalgoers simply throng the streets admiring each other, eating, drinking, and window-shopping.

Boutiques proliferate, selling everything from Cinderella slippers made of recycled Coca-Cola bottles to Elizabethan-style lace ruffs (a steal at 160 euros, and useful for supporting your head during transatlantic flights). Masks—gold, red, black, feathered, leather, papier-mâché—stare sightlessly from infinite stalls. They reproduce traditional forms: the parti-colored “colombina” for Harlequin’s mistress, the scarily mouthless leather “bauta” (an early precursor to Darth Vader’s mask), the protuberant nose of the plague doctor, in which herbs were stuffed to prevent infection. But I also saw a massive bull’s head, inset with crystals, alongside hippos, fauns, sun-gods, Medusas, Albert Einstein, and the blue heroes of Avatar. I was surprised by the wide variation in approaches to disguise. Some carnivalgoers are accoutred as carefully as Casanova, in period costume. Others wear tired tiger suits, or merely a Zorro eye-band.

You can’t wear a mask inside Venice’s art museums, in case you stage a heist. Nothing prevents you, however, from going, clad in Renaissance doublet, to see the jaw-dropping Veronese painting “Christ in the House of Levi” at the Accademia, or from ogling the Salvador Dalís in the Guggenheim Collection while dressed as a banana. Whether or not you embrace your inner fruit, you shouldn’t miss the Guggenheim, housed in a light-filled palazzo towards the end of the Grand Canal. Its superb catalogue of cubist and surrealist masterpieces, from Picasso to Magritte, are bound to bend your mind.

I also recommend the Palazzo Grimani, a gem of menacing splendor from the 1500s whose staircase featured in the terrifying final sequence of Don’t Look Now (1973). Its ceilings, one depicting a forest of fruit and birds, one hung with a sculpture of Ganymede and the Eagle that seems about to fall on the viewer, alone are worth the price of admission. This year, the palace hosted an exhibition of three triptychs by Hieronymus Bosch whose brilliantly weird composite creatures share the energetic mutability of Carnival.

Homer Simpson would rush to Venice if he heard about the Carnival speciality: frittelle. They are spherical doughnuts, studded with raisins. The best are filled with zabaglione: egg custard spiked with Marsala. You eat them warm at a pasticceria, standing at the counter, licking the oily crystals of sugar off each contented finger. Otherwise, Venetian food can resemble an opera most memorable for its overture. Locals begin the evening in a bar with cichete (tapas) and Prosecco and, frankly, there is much to be said for staying there. Among the delicious antipasti I sampled were prosciutto with rocket, pear, and parmesan; grilled zucchini strips rolled around stracchino cheese, with capers and olive oil; crostini with truffle paste and radicchio; breaded fried anchovies and mantis shrimps on polenta.

My favorite place for lunch became the welcoming Osteria ai Artisti (Fondamente della Toletta, Dorsoduro 1169). Their tagliatelle with baby artichokes, parsley, and sweet prawns fresh from the market are so tender and comforting that you feel as if you personally have been drizzled in melted butter. Try the Amarone della Valpolicella, a deep velvet concentrated red wine, and you may never leave.

Although Venice’s alleys are labyrinthine, they are well sign-posted, so you are unlikely to get badly lost. Getting slightly lost is a pleasure. You might discover a bread shop decorated with focaccia masks. Or a clothes shop whose door bears the teasing handwritten message “Open Some Time.” Petting a wary cat in an empty back street called Calle del Fumo, I stumbled across a tiny and exquisite print shop. The proprietor, Gianni Basso, ushered me in and showed me his collection of old letterpresses, type, woodcuts, and copper engravings with which he produces, individually and by hand, beautiful visiting cards, business letterheads, and prints of Venice. I was entranced. His stamps showed a miniature bestiary of winged lions, foxes, squirrels, dragons, wolves, monkeys, and hares.

Basso told me that he had learned the art of letterpress in an Armenian monastery. When the monks got computers, he decided to leave and set up shop himself, rescuing old materials from the defunct printmakers of Venice. He still doesn’t have a computer, or a fax; but he gets orders, by post, from around the world, including among his clients the actor Hugh Grant. Explaining his passion, he chuckled, “This is the real Venice; everything south of here is Taiwan.”

He has a point. Venice has always been a tourist city, but in recent years the balance between residents and visitors, local craftsmanship and imported tat, has tipped worryingly towards the plastic gondola end of the market. In the 1950s there were 150,000 Venetians; now there are only 60,000. That means that there are three tourists for every two residents.

“People call it the Exodus,” said Marina Scibilia, president of Forty for Venice, a social networking organization that is trying to revive a sense that Venice should be run for and by its residents as well as tourism. “The trouble is that young people simply can’t afford to live here any more.” In 2000, the council decided to develop more hotels—leading, ironically, to falling room rates. Many butchers and other shops necessary for locals have turned into mask shops, selling only to tourists. The more I spoke to Venetians, the more I realized that, behind the mask of serenity, Venice is angry. There were notices in the market on the Rialto complaining about the effects of a proposed removal of the wholesale fish market to the mainland. They read: “Rialto, just for tourists. Thank you Mr. Mayor.”

I asked Marina what the solution was.

“Tourists themselves want this to be a living city,” she replied, “not Disneyland, not a theme park. In order to keep it living and breathing, Venice needs residents and the council needs to support them, to prize quality over quantity in goods and services, to foster responsible tourism, local artisans, and the long-term future of the lagoon.” Her words made me thoughtful. I recalled the 1866 account of Venetian Life by William Dean Howells. He notes:

I found it a sad condition of my perception of the beauty of Venice and friendship with it, that I came in some unconscious way to regard her fate as my own, and when I began to write the sketches which go to form this book, it was as hard to speak of any ugliness in her, or of the doom written against her in the hieroglyphic seams and fissures of her crumbling masonry, as if the fault and penalty were mine.

You may go then, as I did, in the spirit of Carnival to play in Venice, but the city of mirrors may make you reflect on authenticity, on what you can best do to keep its beautiful fabric alive as more than a theatrical backdrop for the antics of strangers.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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