The Carnival in Venice

I longed to be part of the masked crowd and to go to the Ball.

By Angie McNee

The carnival in Venice fascinated me for years. I longed to be part of the masked crowd and to go to the Ball.

Then I moved to Italy, and Venice was only a four-hour train journey away; train travel is cheap, and so the dream became a reality.

The hotel needed to be booked about six months in advance. Although Venice has hundreds of pensione and hotels, they fill up quickly. There are more in Mestre on the main land, only five minutes away, or Padova just half an hour away, but staying in Venice is just so wonderful.

I never notice until I get back to the main land, that I haven’t had roads to cross or motorinos buzzing past me trying to mow me down or deafen me. There are just paths for people, and bridges, and canals with boats and gondolas ambling along at whatever speed the tide will allow.

So the thoughts of carnival start in September when I ask everyone who may have thought to buy the following years diary early, “When will Ash Wednesday be next year?” Ash Wednesday is at the end of the carnival, and we get to play for ten days before. Then I have to think about the costume.

There are endless options, with the price ranges to accompany them. The cheapest option, and so my favourite, is to buy metres of netting and lace and satin all based around the same colour and to wrap myself in it. Long satin gloves are a must, with huge pieces of costume jewellery over the top.

I turned a simple hat into an elaborate headpiece, with a huge veil, and held it secure with a black feather boa. But none of this would have made much sense without the mask. There is a market area set up at Accademia, near one of the main bridges, where crafts people sell masks, cloaks and hats.

The styles vary, and so do the materials they use. A classic Venetian style is the “Bautta” consisting of a black hooded mantle that leaves just the face exposed. This in turn should be covered by a black or white half mask, and then a tricorn hat over the hood.

Instead I opted for a glamorous gold mask with a decoration like a tiara just above the eyes. It was beautiful. My friend chose to be in all white, mask, cloak, hat and veil. We both carried fresh flowers, his were roses, and purple iris for me, we were marvellous!

And so all glammed up, the only place we needed to go to get attention was into the streets. As soon as we stepped out of our little pensione, we were surrounded by cameras, click, click, flash. We walked on, which was a little difficult.

The mask limits your vision quite drastically, so negotiating some of the four hundred bridges in Venice took some getting used to, especially in four-inch heels! But in the classic style, we walked slowly, stopping to pose when cameras were pointed at us.

In normal life, I shy away from cameras, but in disguise, I loved it. I stood with my head a little to one side, holding my flowers out to the camera, or sometimes to whoever was behind it. I really was the most outrageous flirt with anybody. I felt safe behind the mask.

It was how I imagine being a bride must be, once all the formalities are done and it is time to play the “Belle of the Ball.” Every one wants to dance with you and admire the dress, and the ring, and if you can spare a few seconds for them to record your happiness, they too are happy.

But what about those with camcorders? They don’t take just a moment but every little move, and also a few little stumbles. I couldn’t just stand like a stiff in front of one of those; I had to do a little more. Walking towards them with a vengeance seemed to work well, making the person behind the camera stumble a bit, nervously trying to hold the shot.

Just when they were about to give up, I’d wave my flowers into the camera lens and walk away.

The walk from the pensione to “The most glamorous drawing room in Europe” Piazza San Marco, usually takes thirty minutes. During the carnival in costume it took nearer two and a half-hours, but what a journey.

People would look at us with curiosity, pointing their cameras, but unsure if they were allowed to take a picture. And so many said “Thank you” in their various languages. It was wonderful to be treated with such respect, and we in turn would stop and nod slowly to acknowledge them before walking on.

Last year, a man with a very big camera stopped us on a bridge. He asked everyone else to move away so he could have a clear shot of us. We were convinced we would find our photo on a postcard or a calendar, but we’ve been looking and so far without success.

The big cameras spoiled us a bit, and made us want more big lenses with the potential for publication rather than hundreds of throwaway type cameras, but only for a moment. The little cameras were far more grateful!

The infamous masked ball, immortalised by Verdi in his opera, should be the highlight of the carnival, but only for the select few who can afford it. The tickets go for around £200.

So for the majority of us, the highlight is just being there, in costume, absorbing the atmosphere, wandering through the crowds. Click click flash! People were fascinated by who could be behind the mask, but they kept a respectful distance, as we did with others who also played the masquerade.

A slow nod and a slight bow are all that is necessary to acknowledge and compliment and show respect to those who share the stage. There are of course some prime spots in San Marco, where a large audience is guaranteed.

“Florians” and “Quadris”, the famous tea houses, once frequented by Byron and James, with their glass front windows are ideal places to be seen, but expensive, and of course in order to drink something it would be necessary to remove the mask, which sort of spoils the mystery.

Of course the waterfront is a wonderful backdrop, with the pink street lamps and the gondolas bobbing in the water. But positions there are few, and it is the most frightful discourtesy to invade another’s space.

Over the years I have seen the popularity of face painting grow. Hundreds of make-up artists set up in San Marco, so everyone can dress up for the party. Although it looks nice, it means there are less of us in full costume, which certainly is a huge digression from the classic image, but it does mean all the more attention for me!

The streets are wonderful in carnival time, with confetti everywhere; mulled wine stands also selling Frittelle, the carnival cake. I managed to drink some Vin Brulee on our parade thanks to the use of a straw I poked up the inside of my mask, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

It gets awfully hot under the mask, and hot mulled wine with wonderful spices only added to the sauna effect! So we continued to walk the streets and over bridges.

There are so many corners, alleyways and bridges, which hold potential for a theatrical event in Venice, the ideal stage setting. And they all get used during the ten days of carnival, when anybody who wants to, can be a star in the show.

©Angie McNee

First published in Mar 31, 2003

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