Going to Venice for Carnevale was on my bucket list–I thought I’d never do it, and then I went three times! I wrote this piece after the first trip. It came out of my journal entries, but its rambling nature captures the chaotic feeling quite well. It also ended up winning me a prize in Educational Travel Review, a now-defunct publication from ACIS travel company. Hope it makes you smile.
“Venezia in maschera” reads the poster I begged from a shop and carried home to put on my fridge, reminding me of that trip I took during Carnevale. On it, a gondolier rows a boat made from the crescent moon, and a Renaissance signore and signora kiss above the blue-green diamond-tipped waters. Maskers flock to Venice as they have for over a thousand years, and this year I was to be one of them. For days ahead of time, my energy was so high at work that my colleagues came up just to stand next to me, to soak up my supercharged energy.
After all my previous summer trips, this time I planned something special: Venice during winter Carnevale, to see the mad crowds and masks and pray for a dream of snow, to sip fragolino, the first drink I always have upon returning, that gorgeous wine filled with summer light. And a special place to stay in the back labyrinth of streets, next to a ristorante that we made our kitchen and dining room, named Ai Promessi Sposi, meaning The Betrothed, from the story by Manzoni. The chef taught me how to fillet sardines, slipping the blade between the two halves and deftly lifting the spine away. Then the vinegar rush as I ate, and it’s gone in quick tiny bites. Breakfast was Yomo yogurt with crisp peach, chocolate croissant, cappuccino, and green apples. (Once, the apples came stickered: Gli orti di Giulietta, Verona — from Juliet’s orchard!)
My group was with me to see Venice unmasked, too, to see this time of revelry for ourselves. They were mature travelers, who knew that history lay in a mask shop as much as in San Marco. There were faces in those shops that covered the whole animal kingdom, faces from history, every statement and surreal distortion, including the long-snout mask used during the plague. (Maybe they sensed a way to avoid the closeness of contagion?) Pantaloon, Domino, Pulchinello — the traditional Commedia dell’Arte characters abounded. But why all the masks, and why in winter? Stories abound. Just like with the ancient Dionysian festivals, masks promised anonymity. Hoods joined them, even head-to-toe cloaks, burka-style. Revelers shed identities and got away with licentiousness and intrigue. Rich and poor swapped characters. Commoners wore masks to mock the nobility, and even priests took advantage to drop their guards and drink and dance in the streets. But the priests complained when they faced a congregation of frozen faces, and forced the faithful out of their masks for Mass. (Muslims check their shoes at the door, the Venetians checked their masks.) Did the Venetian word “maschera” derive from the Arabic “buffoon” or the Lombard for “soul of the deceased?” We witnessed people in masks of both types as well as countless others.
While some barriers came down, others went up. Winter weather brought forth doors in the city. I’d never known that some of the caffes even had doors. I’d rarely seen any in summer, when everything’s as open as the sunshine. We crushed into these tiny dark bars for most of our meals this time, browsing the glass casefull of sandwiches, loving the dark, heavy wooden tables at a place like l’Olandese Volante (the Flying Dutchman), even putting up with everyone’s smoke drifting into our lunches, watching the waiters yelling and laughing and teasing among themselves to the backdrop of the Rolling Stones. We learned a new toast: “Brindisi,” like the city. Then, when we’d actually clink glasses, we’d say Cin cin. We became habitués at these places, and sometimes were given a “Venetian” price (way low), kissed on our hands by the waiters, serenaded by accordions and men of all ages. And Aiyee! Some of these Italian men, so beautiful. Worth the price of the plane ticket. The stuff of new stories and poem fodder. I feel I am in love all the time I am here. I think my love for Venice needs an object to be lavished upon. My senses are overwhelmed. Ancora, ancora, again will I return.
We were here for things like that this time: Venice behind the tourist mask, Venice for itself, when the real masks come out, the paper ones. Loud, boisterous, a thousand of these tiny bites and rushes of flavor. Delicious. Intoxicating. Where else could we meet a clown strolling the street and get confetti tossed in our faces, which sifted into our clothes and even turned up in our beds? Forever memories. We got used to not sleeping for the revelers outside the window. But my mind was awake anyway, no shutting it off, thinking ahead to the next day. On one of those days I showed my gondolieri friends the newspaper article I had published on them, spilling their lifestyle, their nonstop comedy routine among themselves, zinging each other with endless puns. I had made friends with them easily on previous trips, researching this article, learned how their craft was passed from father to son through the generations, how impossible it was to know how much money they made (they’re as tight on the topic as Fort Knox, to fend off the tax collector), how most of them stayed in the job for life, and that although they’re not university-educated, they picked up an amazing amount of learning from parents and peers. They taught me more of the life of Venice, today, yesterday, during its golden age (15th century), than the Library of Congress could have tossed at me. (My Italian’s rickety but serviceable.)
Winter’s the gondola slow season, so Stefano, my gondolier friend, gave us a canal special, full of not-in-the-guidebook stuff, like the church named Miracoli (miracle), built by a rich family who prayed to the Madonna every day and had their faithfulness rewarded during a big fire, which burnt up every house in the neighborhood but theirs. So they built the Miracoli church in thanks. Stefano also claimed that the Rialto Bridge is the real “Bridge of Sighs,” next to the city prison. But Lord Byron found that other, tinier bridge more romantic, prisoners sighing as they crossed it and having one final glimpse of Venice. Stuff upon stuff like that.
Once, four men walked in when we were at a caffè. I called them the Four Gentlemen of Verona, all alike in dignity, one a shoe designer, one a marble worker, one a manager of a granite firm, and one too quiet. They were wearing Renaissance costumes and three-corner hats. Their leader raised his glass to us across the room. Perfetto! Instant familiarity at Carnevale, you see it everywhere. People singing operatic arias on the street until the wee hours. One man at a caffè, an old dude wearing a tan fedora, told us about being imprisoned in England during WWII, near Liverpool. He wanted to sing for us. The past forgiven, we smiled and kissed his cheeks.
How’d it all start, Carnevale? While the revels reach back to Greek Dionysian festivals, it wasn’t until the era of powerful popes that Carnevale became attached to the Easter Lenten practice. Catholics gave up meat for Lent, hence carne (meat) and vale (farewell) became the ten days to feast before Lenten privations. Venetians took Carnevale to unique extremes until it stretched into a six-month affair and was banned in 1797 by Napoleon. But Venice knew a good thing and revived it as a ten-day party in 1979. During Carnevale the city itself becomes a theater. Masked parades make the Piazza San Marco a flagstoned stage. We felt like pinballs, zinging from one amazing costumed group to another. There was a sun and moon couple, and birdlike people with huge wingspans, a giant yellow bunny with a saxophone. Everybody got into it. We did, changing into our costumes molto rapido, clothes flying, then rushing and dodging through the alleys to find the nearest action. I got my face painted with layers of brown, gold, and glitter. Once, a costumed “doctor” held up his stethoscope and yelled fisica! (“a physical!”) and started chasing us, and onlookers pelted me with confetti that even got into my underwear. Proud of our costumes, we arrived at Florian’s, the famous caffe where Wagner, Hemingway, and every other visiting luminary has taken his coffees. But . . . our costumes didn’t rate, and during Carnevale, Florian lets people in based on their costumes. So instead we settled into a lesser place, where we talked our way in after closing. As I waited at the rest room, a big gorilla came out.
Venice at Carnevale is round-the-clock bizarre. Bizarre to wake up and stick your head out the window to catch snowflakes, wet on the tongue, melting on the cheeks. It was my Valentine’s Day gift. Where else could we go into a church (San Donato) and find dragon bones mounted behind the altar? We went to Marco Polo’s house in the Cannaregio district, through the first and second courtyards named milione for the “million lies” that the Venetians believed Marco had spun to make himself famous. His house has long since been gutted and turned into a . . . theater. Apt, a place of tall tales, like Venice itself. Near Marco’s house was a shop selling big folded-paper cutout stars to make lamps out of, and an x-rated clock that showed a different Kama Sutra position at each hour, along with a one-word summary of each zodiac sign. For Capricorn, it said Elegante! Right on.
Then more mask shops, and at the Scala del Bovolo, the most famous staircase in Venice, twisting around inside a cylindrical tower, we saw a crowd of French people in costume, posing on the steps. They told us they do this every year, and they make their own costumes. This year’s theme was music. We should have borrowed one of theirs — it might have gotten us into Florian’s! The day was topped off back at San Marco, where everyone was dancing to a ska band, and there were tons of people partying, confetti everywhere, kids with foam cans spraying everything in sight.
Venice in winter can also be ghostly. In the days following Carnevale, the Pesceria, or fish market, seemed deserted. There weren’t so many boats in the canals. Our breath steamed. We felt like the shades of past inhabitants, now peopling the streets, the actual people of the city the insubstantial ones behind their masks and shut doors. We crisscrossed the Grand Canal on the traghetto, the city’s substitute for bridges. They’re larger, less fancy gondolas manned by gondolieri or their apprentices, used mainly by locals, who stand as they cross the canal. As we stood, I thought of the city’s funeral barges, and the ghosts said to stand around the coffin. We felt just as ethereal in the winter mist. At San Marco, there was no one there, at least compared to summer crowds doing the Venice shuffle down the aisles. A couple of times I began to feel that overwhelming grace I experienced the first time I visited the basilica. Streets seemed empty, window shutters and doors closed against the winter damp, window ledges nude of geraniums.
Going behind the masks, we unlocked some of Venice’s secrets — past miracles, midnight revelers, winter ghosts.
I fell in love with my city all over again, seconding Disraeli’s words: “The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can ever end.”