Venice Dresses Up for Carnevale

For Centuries, Masks Have Freed Revelers to Party With Abandon

The many faces of Venice, Italy, are on display during its annual Carnevale.
By Mathias Wildt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 15, 2009; Page P01

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.

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