07 February 2008

Post-Carnevale thoughts

Two weeks ago I faced the onset of Venice’s Carnevale with some trepidation. Everyone was sure I would adore it because – OK, everyone knows it – I am a costume freak! Hallowe’en, Renaissance Faire, Christmas pageants, “Witchcraft & Taco Nite,” theme-driven dinner parties, private dances in my boudoir – any excuse to haul out the glitter and sequins, the boas and capes, the hats and wings, the corsets and petticoats, the wigs and the make-up box, and all the perfect props. Since babyhood I have been putting together fantasy get-ups in which I could try on other lives, other personalities. As in childhood, I ponder next year’s Hallowe’en costume even as I am still wearing this year’s. In short, I was born for Carnevale! So I couldn’t quite put my finger on just why I felt lukewarm about this important event in my Venice year – my beloved lady, committed to masking and costuming for twelve whole days!

I knew that the present day Carnevale is a fairly new version of the old custom, revived in the ‘70s to drive tourist traffic, and not truly an extension of the long and historic Venetian tradition. Some things were bound to get lost in the translation.

I also figured the crowds would take a toll on me. They surely did. Here was, in great part, the lowest class of tourist, and so very many of them! Bridges and streets were hopelessly clogged, crass behavior and litter were abundant, nighttime racket reached new decibel levels on Calle dei Fuseri.

I imagined I would suffer some wistfulness that my budget would not permit me to take part in one of the many glamorous balls around town. And also I had nothing special to wear. Originally I planned to make my own fabulous costume for the festivities – a Venetian version of the black spider in Cirque du Soleil: Allegria. But the time to depart for Venice came too quickly and I didn’t finish it. I didn’t have room for it in my suitcase anyway. I was OK with that, though. Venice is full of places to rent one’s fantasy persona for an evening.

I had a dim idea that it had something to do with the ever-increasing glut of garish mask shops in Venice. Sometimes I almost weep when I come across yet another such place. Especially when the piled-up goods are clearly inauthentic, probably imported from China, and often shabbily manufactured. Why, I always wonder, does Venice cheapen her most valuable asset – her unique, exotic history – in this charmless, money-grasping way?

When the first day arrived and the costumed celebrants hit the streets for their promenades, I realized just what was keeping me distant from the festivities, and why probably I will never be fully seduced by Venice’s Carnevale. The reason: it is not Carnevale. It is not even a pale shadow of Carnevale. (And it is certainly no Mardi Gras, even post-Katrina!)

C’era una volta – “There was a time” when Venice’s pre-Lenten celebration stretched to almost nine months. Masks played the critical, driving role. The practice of masking permitted Venetians of all social strata to mingle in public and to behave outrageously in an otherwise restrictive Christian culture. A nobleman would pose as a peasant, and a seamstress as a great lady. In this way they might meet and greet (perhaps more!) without revealing their true selves, without the usual restrictions of their classes. (What could be more democratic? What could be more delicious and erotic?) And mingle they did! In a charged, colorful atmosphere, surrounded by street theatre, all kinds of special drink and foods, and always, always festive music. Commedia dell’Arte flourished. Acrobats and troubadors, puppeteers and jesters performed day and night. Charlatans fervently hawked their miraculous cures and mysterious love potions in the streets. The well-to-do flung handfuls of gold coins into wine shops, to buy rounds for their less fortunate neighbors. Large campos saw bullfights, contests of strength and speed, and feats of daredevilry; sottoporteghi (passageways under houses) saw brief, heated trysts between momentary lovers. All of Venice partied together, hard enough to provoke the wrath of the Vatican on many occasions.

Today’s Carnevale is lacking in these elements for me. Now it seems to be about separation of the classes. The wealthy (usually foreign) can rent spectacular costumes and attend costly balls; the others slap together whatever get-ups they can, usually completely incongruous with the historic aspect of Carnevale, or buy a cheesy (but still overpriced) mask to wear with their jeans and parkas, or merely stand by dully and watch. And, in truth, nothing much happens in the streets, outside of some loud, bad music, a few thin little puppet shows and acrobatic performances, lots of late night drunken student carousing, and the occasional brief spurt of puny fireworks or a small trashcan “bonfire.” And what does it say, that I met the world’s foremost portrayer of Arlecchino, not in Venice but in… Manhattan? That, in fact, there was no representation of Commedia dell’Arte during Carnevale at all?

Very quickly I found myself repelled by the breathtaking, over-the-top professional costumes, as well as the much subtler but obviously very expensive ones with rich passementerie and real furs. They seemed ridiculous in the otherwise ordinary setting of shops and restaurants (if Venice can ever be called “ordinary”), embarrassing when stared at through Florian’s windows. Worse, they seemed elitist. Costumed promenaders often appeared intent on excluding onlookers. They were aloof at best, downright snotty at worst. Gawkers behaved like lovestruck groupies at a rock concert, snapping pictures, oohing and aahing. I fear that this will be the only way they will ever see this city in their minds now. They have missed the complex, remarkable “woman” behind her shabby disguise. Even the backdrop, lovely Venice herself, seemed saddened, faded, more tired than I had ever glimpsed her. I suppose it was the glare of the glitter…

All this made me long for an afternoon at any Renaissance Faire in the U.S., where the consistency of the whole picture is far greater and everyone participates at an equal level, at least in spirit. At such an event (usually held in an empty field, perhaps with a small lake or pond), food and music and games and theatre are so plentiful, one hardly knows where to look or what to do first. It’s hard to fit everything into one visit! Nearly everyone contributes to the conspiracy of the illusion because nearly everyone is in period-correct costume – there are few if any blue-jeaned voyeurs with videocams. Thus, there is a great sense of playfulness. Strangers mingle easily. A brash, wolf-faced nobleman-rogue in velvet breeches (Is he really a shy computer nerd?) might leer at or even try to snatch a kiss from a near-bare-breasted serving wench (Is she really a tough corporate executive?). No way he would have the nerve without his leather wolf mask; no way she would permit it without her push-up bodice and lace. Both have a delightful time in this fantasy pantomime. All the onlookers participate too, applauding and howling. More fun than I had at any moment during this hollow Carnevale (“Incontri” and my personal spy games aside)!

I do not suggest that La Serenissima has disappointed me. Never. I only fear that this cheap way she sells herself day in and day out will be the real cause of her demise, and not her supposedly rising waters. I wish she would stop and re-think her special holiday, her Carnevale, make it instead a true reflection and a celebration worthy of her glorious past. I wish I could think of a way to help.