By Shayantani Sarkar
Venice was once the pleasure capital of Europe and it truly deserves to be so. The romantic city is as prismatic as I had imagined and the beauty of Venice is enhanced during the carnival. Witnessing the oldest carnival recorded in history was both trance-inducing and overwhelming at the same time. The confetti-strewn cobbled streets, face paintings at city squares, live baroque music echoing from Patrician houses, and people in carnival masks and costumes remind you that you are in the land of Giacomo Casanova, where each nook and cranny whispers a tale.
Some say the tradition began as early as the 16th century when a Turkish acrobat walked on a tightrope. The carnival emerged from the daily life of the Venetians. Gorgeous courtesans and gambling houses were common in those days, so were gamblers and money-lenders and games of identity were a part of the Venetian life. Casanova was not the only one who was reprehensible albeit the foremost. We have heard stories about the disguise of Portia in ‘Merchant of Venice’ or stories about women using masks for a lover’s tryst, or philandering scamps masking their identity to slip into nunneries for seduction, or for hiding from creditors. Anybody could be lurking behind these masks, back then and even now.
The ‘dama’ mask is commonly seen in the carnival. I did not hesitate to pick one for myself. What a variety to choose from – colorful masks with lace, plumage, ribbons; hand-painted glittering with gold, silver and colorful beads, bells and some economical Chinese ones these days. It is a treat to the eye.
Political and social reformers had banned the use of masks and the carnival. It was revived in the 1980’s by the Italian government after a hiatus of a century. People travel from across the globe to participate in this jamboree and the psychedelic masks are accompanied by 16th century outfit, characterized by opulence. Women wear tight corsets, kirtles, and billowing dresses. The costumes are accentuated by massive headgear and hair accessories. Men sported breeches, brocade waistcoats and wigs. Anything modern in Venice is discordant, the Gondolas, the water-taxis and the vaporettos (waterbus) reverberates that the city is unaffected by time, and people decked in flashy vintage attire can make you feel that you are in the 16th century Doges (Dukes). You would not find anyone in modern disguise like Halloween costumes or sassy cartoon or film costume.
Evenings are beautiful with people dressed as counts and countesses walking down to city squares or enjoying tea in salons or joining in masquerade balls and music flowing till the wee hours, and gourmet seafood. Venice can be very touristy and restaurants with signboards such as ‘Menu Turistico’ are to be avoided. There are some obvious tourist traps in Venice, but I will reserve my discussion about that for a later post.
This year’s Carnival theme was ‘Color’. In John Ruskin’s words “The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.” Each hue and luminosity evokes emotion just like a piece of art. The carnival paid tribute to artists like Titian and Giorgione who were inspired by the colors of Venice. The theme also synchronized with the objective of the carnival, which is the ushering of spring.
I was soaked in the ardor of the festivity and nothing could dampen it. Not even the frequent rainfall or the cold winds. Though the 15-day bacchanal ends with the Lent period before Easter, celebrations never end here and the warmth of the fiesta lingers even after the costumes and masks have returned safe to the ambry with mothballs. It is difficult to sum up Venice in words as each aspect of the floating city leaves you in awe. It is a city of imagination. On my way back as I dragged my strolley through the cobbled stone streets, I saw Italian glass objects in the shop window gleaming in the morning Sun. There are so many things that I can take back as souvenirs from Venice, but if I have to pick one thing, it would be the spirit of the city.
Shayantani Sarkar has lived across the length and breadth of India, but spent her initial years in Kolkata, a city that influenced her deeply. A passionate photographer and traveler, she relishes good food and grooves to Latin music. She is happily employed in the IT industry and loves reading Paulo Coelho.