Waterborne fantasy creatures took over the famed Venice waterways to mark the opening of the lagoon city's annual carnival yesterday evening.

The theme for the 2013 edition is "Live in Colour" and the parade of the fairytale-like characters got things off to a stylish start.

Balls held in Venetian palaces, concerts and gondola parades are organised throughout the 17-day carnival which runs until February 12.

Thousands of tourists from across Italy and the world every year crowd the city's canals, bridges and squares to marvel at the colourful display of masks and costumes.

The Carnevale di Venezia is one of the oldest carnivals in the world.

Carnival madness first began centuries ago as a period of excess before the rigours of lent, the 40 days of fasting that traditionally precede Easter.

Venetians could then hide their identities behind masks and do as they pleased.

It was a pressure valve to ease class tensions, allowing the poor, for a brief and controlled period, to break Venice's rigid, oligarchical social order.

The carnival's end marks the beginning of Lent and signals the start of Venice's tourist season, which runs into the autumn.

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