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Venice Dresses Up for Carnevale
For Centuries, Masks Have Freed Revelers to Party With Abandon

By Mathias Wildt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 15, 2009

On a foggy February morning a few years ago, my wife and I were walking down an alley in Venice when we turned a corner and were confronted by an amazing sight: a procession of 30 human figures seeming to glide on the stone pavement in complete silence, like aliens.

The figures wore long gowns that almost brushed the ground; also masks, hats and gloves. Black makeup covered their faces and eyelids in such a way that even the eye slits of their masks revealed no human feature. Their costumes were so elaborate and detailed, the cloth and decoration so rich, that we thought: This is what it must have been like for normal people to see a pharaoh, or a Caesar, or royalty, centuries ago. Completely surreal.

That was in 2002, our first time at the Venice Carnevale, and this year we're going back for the fourth time. Carnevale, like Carnival everywhere in the Christian world, is a festive time. In Venice it is a time when people from around the globe come to show off in costumes and to offer their creativity and ingenuity to us onlookers in a burst of colors, fun and humor that lights up the long, gray winter months.

On the weekend before Martedi Grasso (Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent), "the masks," as both the costumes and the masked figures themselves are called, converge on Piazza San Marco to show themselves and join Carnevale's festivities.

The costumes range from original creations that took a year to sew together to Spider-Man outfits bought in a shop the same morning. Many revelers wear gowns and other garb in fashion in the 1700s, the heyday of Carnevale, when European royals would come to party incognito in this city known for its licentiousness. Today, several balls with admission tickets costing as much as $1,300 re-create those lavish parties in private palazzos along the Grand Canal.

Some revelers opt for traditional Venetian costumes, such as the bauta, a white, hooked-nose mask worn under a black cape and held in place with a tricorn hat. Covering the whole body, the cape and mask hide the wearer's face, social status and even sex.

And that is the beauty of masks, even the less traditional and more fanciful. You may be admiring a mask that has the delicate, symmetrical features of a beautiful woman, but who is behind it? A beautiful woman? An ugly man? The mystery is part of the fascination. And for the wearer, it's a chance to play a part or to act as he (or she) pleases.

In the past, Carnevale was a wild period before the rigors of Lent, the 40 days of fasting that precede Easter. It was also a pressure valve to ease class tensions, allowing the poor, for a brief and controlled period, to break Venice's rigid social order.

But masks have had broader usage here. Historically, Venetians donned them whenever they wanted to flirt, meet a lover or gamble without being recognized by their creditors. La Serenissima, as the Republic of Venice was known, tried to limit the use of masks through rigid laws, including one in 1458 banning men from entering nunneries dressed as women to commit "dishonest" acts. Punishments for breaking mask laws were severe. Prostitutes caught wearing masks were whipped from the Rialto Bridge to Piazza San Marco, while men could be sentenced to row in irons for 18 months on one of the galleys with which Venice dominated trade in the Adriatic and Mediterranean.

La Serenissima's 1,000-year reign ended when Napoleon conquered it in 1797. The Austrians occupied Venice in the 1800s, and their rigid sense of order and propriety was so offended by Carnevale's masks and carousing that they banned the celebration. Carnevale made a comeback after World War II and now attracts a million people every year, dwarfing the population of 62,000.

That means crowds, yes, but only along the Rialto-Bridge-to-Piazza-San-Marco route. The moment you take a side alley and walk for a minute, you find yourself in a completely different atmosphere, and at every turn you may discover a magnificent architectural, artistic or historical treasure.

Such as the 10-foot-tall statue of a lion guarding the gate of the Arsenale, where Venice built its powerful fleets of galleys. On the lion's right shoulder, carved into the white marble, is a dragon. And along the body of the dragon, Scandinavian runic characters were chiseled to remind posterity that "Hakon, Ulf, Asmund and Orn conquered this port." But it's not Venice they're referring to.

The four men were part of an army of Viking mercenaries who served the Byzantine Empire and, around the year 1000, were sent to crush a rebellion in Piraeus, the ancient port of Athens. The port was also called the port of the lion, after this statue, which had stood there since the 1st century. So the four warriors chose to leave their mark on the city's most famous monument. Then, in 1687, a Venetian fleet took Piraeus, and the ever-acquisitive Venetians brought the lion home with them. After all, the lion is the symbol of Saint Mark, the city's patron saint.

So much history, so many stories, in just one statue.

And there are countless more around Venice, along with magnificent palaces, hidden gardens, romantic bridges. It is understandable, then, that tour guides claim that the most common question tourists ask them is "What time does Venice open?" as if the city were a theme park. That it is not, but its concentration of beauty, art and history can be overwhelming. As Truman Capote once said, "Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go."

I still get lost in some neighborhoods and love every minute of it. I tuck away my map and wander around, finding unexpected marvels such as the round bas-reliefs, called patere, that adorn palaces. Some depict an eagle killing a rabbit, symbolically representing nobility defeating lust, others two peacocks drinking from the fountain of youth. There are several on a house along Fondamenta Tofetti, just opposite the excellent wine bar Il Cantinone. So you can admire them while eating a mix of canapes and drinking a glass of bubbly prosecco or of amarone, the rich red from the Veneto region.

I love to stumble across a mask while strolling the back streets, a sudden apparition of color amid the dreary hues everyone else chooses to wear in winter. But it's in Piazza San Marco that the masks congregate. They walk around, or they pose under the porticos lining three sides of the square -- Napoleon called it Europe's most beautiful living room -- by the cathedral or by the gondolas where the square opens to the sea.

The costumed figures, especially the ones fully covered and wearing a face mask, observe an etiquette: Do not speak to anyone even if spoken to, move slowly and gracefully, and acknowledge one another with short nods. Some may pose for photos, while others stand aloof, ignoring the crush of people trying to get a photo of them or standing next to them for a snapshot.

When a masked figure looks at you, it can be disconcerting, especially if the headpiece is well done and you cannot see the owner's eyes. We are used to looking at people's faces and gauging their mood and intentions from their expression. You cannot do that with a mask. That's why the scene in Stanley Kubrik's movie "Eyes Wide Shut" in which Tom Cruise is surrounded by masked people is so unsettling.

I cannot vouch for the private parties that take place during Carnevale, but the masks in the streets are certainly harmless.

My favorite memory is from two years ago. I was standing on the Ponte dell'Accademia, waiting for someone, when three masks walked up the bridge in beautiful costumes. My smile and pure delight at watching them must have pleased them, for they greeted me, in turn, with the slow nod of the head they typically reserve for other masks, and I, happily, returned the salutes. After they had walked past, I watched the evening's last sun rays light La Salute's white dome. Only in Venice. I smile every time I think about it.

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