This year's edition of the Venice Carnival is now drawing to a close. When I was a student, I had the chance to buy a last minute ticket on a package tour and spend three days there. My friends and I travelled from
Paris where I
was a student.The journey seemed to take forever. Our accommodation
in Mestre was very basic and I only had an improvised, home made costume - a
cape, black tricorne hat and fluffy cobalt blue feather boa (a rather strange
combination, I do admit!). None of that mattered. I will never forget my first glimpse of Venice from the vaporetto
speeding across the Laguna. The moment I got off the boat, I stepped into a
fairytale which lasted three days.
It is thought that the Carnival was created to celebrate the victory of the Serenissima Republica against the Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162. It became more and more popular during the Renaissance and the eighteenth century until 1797, when it was outlawed under the rule of the King of Austria. The Carnival reappeared for short periods in the nineteenth century, but mostly for private soirées and celebrations, and it was only in 1979 that the Carnival made its official return.
Masks and lavish costumes are an essential feature of the Venice Carnival and make the whole event magical. I remember couples parading and posing in the most extravagant outfits and masks, looking as if they'd just come out of an eighteenth century fantasy.
The most instantly recognisable Venetian mask is the volto (Italian for face) or larva (meaning ghost in Latin), which is often white but can also be gilded and decorated. The Bauta is a mask which covers the whole face. It has a no mouth and a strong chin line to enable the wearer to talk, eat and drink easily without having to remove it, and was often accompanied by a black cape - a tabarro - and a tricorne hat. During the eighteenth century the Venetian government legislated that all citizens were required to wear the Bauta during certain decision-making events to allow direct, free and equal democratic ballots. They were also prohibited from carrying weapons when masked.
Other masks you see during the carnival are the Columbina, a half-mask that only covers the wearer's eyes, nose, and upper cheeks and is often decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers, and the Medico della peste (The Plague Doctor) mask. One of the most bizarre Venetian masks, it has a long nose shaped like a beak and glass openings for the eyes. It didn't start out as a carnival mask at all but was designed by 17th-century French physician Charles de Lorme who wore it whilst treating plague victims.
One of my fondest memories is going into the Caffè Florian on Piazza San Marco. Opened in 1720, it is one of the oldest cafés in existence and was visited by Casanova, Goethe and later Charles Dickens and Lord Byron. Another lovely memory is walking along the Laguna very early the morning after the carnival had ended. The town was eerily quiet, and the Laguna sparkled in pale golden sunlight.
I promised myself I would go back...I hope one day I will.