The wood slates of the window showed only a peek of the dawn flowing in from the Venetian morning. I heard the gondolas docking in the port below. Dark brewed coffee was on the way. A dove flew by and landed in an ancient bell tower and I could hear the flapping of its wings. I pushed open the shutters and saw three masked men with capes dressed in black and white costumes. They had masks with long noses and were carrying canes. They stopped and turned to my balcony window and performed a dramatic bow. I knew then that I was at Carnevale, or Mardi Gras,Venice style.
A city drenched in history, Venice is a place worth dreaming about, where magic looms forth from its crooked streets. Flocks of birds swirl endlessly across the vast plaza at St. Marco Square. The church bells here ring throughout the day, echoing over the famous slender gondolas that glide upon the lacework of Venice’s lagoons. Thin spun Venetian glass spindles and ornaments hang from the tiny shop windows, as do sweet confections whipped into tempting designs. During Venice’s Carnevale season (January 25 through February 5, 2008) this intriguing and mysterious city becomes even more extraordinary.
You can get lost in Venice, and then end up where you began. The tapestries of its bridges and corridors create a maze through the city. Made up of 118 islands, only two to four feet above sea level, Venice has 117 canals connected by 360 bridges. The main avenue is the Grand Canal where a motorized boat transport called the vaporetti buses people around the city. There is no other city in the world of this scale and sophistication where the automobile is absent.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Venice was a world maritime power during the Middle Ages. During this period of Venice’s history it accumulated immense wealth. The city is an architectural marvel where even some of its smallest buildings are embellished with glorious detail. Many painters have attempted to capture the beauty of the brilliant light that reflects on the city’s villas overlooking its deep blue waterways.
Art and music abounds in Venice. Collections of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Veronese, Titian, and Tintoretto can be found in many of the small museums of Venice. During the 16th century, Venice became one of the most important musical centers in Europe, marked by the characteristic style of composition know as the Venetian school.
Today, there are historic churches and halls in Venice where chamber concerts can be heard on almost any night of the week. During the Carnival, there are elaborate masked balls held at some of the grandest homes and hotels in the city, where period costumed musicians perform classical music concerts. Many of these are by invitation; however, there are several that can be attended for a fee.
The opening of Carnival is typically held at a grand hotel with a gala dinner and an opera performance. This year the event was held at the Luna Hotel Baglioni on January 25. The fire-lit drawing room of the hotel served as the greeting place where Venetians gathered in medieval masks and cloaks. Venetian canapés were served along with Bellini and Rossini cocktails as the funny opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioacchino Rossini was performed by international artists. The Marco Polo Ballroom (named after the famous resident of Venice) swirled with color and fantasy as the masked guests dined, danced, and toasted the beginning of the Carnival season.
This year, the Luna Hotel Baglioni is also the setting for a grand masked ball on February 1, and for a “farewell to Carnival” gala on the evening of February 5. The architecture of the hotel is worth a visit during any season.
Original frescoes by the pupils of the Tiepolo School adorn the ceiling of the ballroom and magnificent murals grace the halls of its walkways. The Austrian crystal chandeliers twinkle like jewels from the ceilings of the hotel. Most hotel Carnival events range in price from $200 to $300 Euros per person. On the second floor of the Luna Hotel Baglioni, the Venice Atelier offers period costumes for the evening’s festivities.
Other spectacular events that occur in Venice during the Carnival season include: a historical evening of classical music at the Bauer Hotel, one of the most prestigious private estates in Venice; and a candlelit dinner to the music of Caffé Concerto Strauss at the Palazzo Dona delle Rose, a historical residence still inhabited by descendants of the ancient family Dona delle Rose. At the Zenobio Palace, birds of fire dance along the canal as harpists play and champagne flows. The Zenobio Palace’s masked ball has flame throwers and musicians who roam the fairy-tale-like garden while the guests dine and dance. The whirlwind of costumed balls that occur throughout the two-week celebration of Carnival is a reflection of the love Venetians have for their city’s sense of tradition.
The first record of Carnival in Venice was noted in 1268. The festival had a subversive nature, and over the centuries, officials in Italy were prompted to create laws restricting the use of masks. Many a mischievous prank was performed under the disguise of a mask. Traditionally, the Venetians were allowed to wear masks from St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) through midnight of Shrove Tuesday [the day before Ash Wednesday]. Masks could even be worn during the Ascension from October 5 through Christmas.
Although masks had been banned in the 1930s by the fascist government, the exquisite mask boutiques of Venice appeared in the 1980s and brought back the celebration of the Venetians’ beloved Carnival season.
Masks and the art of making them is a popular trade in Venice. The maschereri (mask-makers) date back to 1436. Traditionally made of leather or papier-mâché, the contemporary Venetian masks are now covered with feathers, gems, gold leaf, and gesso.
The three styles of traditional Venetian masks are the larva, moretta, and the bauta. The bauta covers the entire face and thus conceals the identity of the wearer. The bauta-style mask was also made with a cutout for the chin and mouth area, giving an opening for the pursuit of kissing and drinking. The moretta is an oval mask of black velvet with a more feminine flare. The larva (also called the volto mask) is the style most commonly associated with Venetian masks. It is predominately white and stylistic with raised accents for high cheekbone design. The masquerader wearing the larva-style mask typically dresses in all black and wears a cape.
During this magical Carnival season, there are many nocturnal celebrations in Venice. Annually, a large stage is erected in St. Marco Square where fanciful costumed performances are staged. The fashionable cafés surrounding the square are alive with the pomp and ceremony of Venetians dressed in medieval attire. There are no floats or formal parades such as we have in Louisiana; however, there are processions of grandly dressed Venetians, most of whom have a heritage dating back to the early days of Venice.
A spectacular parade of costumes and masks is held each year at the Palazzo Zanardi, an authentic 16th-century Venetian villa. Considered the finest display of the elegant and rich traditional costumes of Venice, this event is held in the evening around 9 pm in the original home of Agnello Partecipazio Doge. In this sumptuous setting lit with candles, Venetian aristocrats, with Casanova, the doge and dogaressa (the duke and duchess), and their court, waltz through the evening. Harps and flutes serenade the guests and a speaker gives a lecture on the classical period costumes displayed from the artistic and fashion period of the 1800s in Venice.
A smaller but no less coveted event is the dinner at Venice’s most exclusive old casino overlooking the San Marco church and the Doge’s Palace. Guests are encouraged to join in with the performance as a master of dance teaches minuets, rondo, and other group dances to the ethereal sounds of a baroque ensemble. Here too, of course, costume is required.
When the last Venetian tumbles into bed, with the full moon shining over the canals on the stroke of midnight on Shrove Tuesday, we can be certain that minuets are playing in their heads. Two weeks of dancing and masquerading, on or off the gondolas, sounds a wee bit like Mardi Gras, New Orleans style.