"Venghino, Venghino. Signore e Signori! Oggi in Piazza San Marco si esibirà la Donna Cannone!" – the words on this hat – loosely translate as: "Roll up ladies and gentlemen, in St Mark's Square today you can see the exceptional Donna Cannone." La Donna Cannone is both an Italian song performed by gondoliers and an exhibition of illustrations once shown in Venice.
Venice – Long Read

Perfect stage for the world’s most stylish carnival

Photo by Gaston Batistini

Venice – Long Read Perfect stage for the world’s most stylish carnival

Hello Venice, where the carnival is perhaps more splendid than the many others celebrated throughout the world. Every winter, the streets, palaces and cafés are packed with costumed party-goers, each reveling in the decorous glamor of the occasion and anonymity of the mask that encourages its air of decadence and sexual innuendo. Carnival – when all of Venice becomes a stage.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

“Sior maschera...,” hidden by her white mask, Valentina sighs in despair. She is rooted to the spot. Who is this mysterious stranger, who so suddenly appeared out of the Venetian mist and is holding her captive with his passionate eyes? Is it just a chance encounter in a deserted alleyway, far from the Piazza San Marco? She feels her heart beating heavily and her breath quickens. Her friends’ stories about secret meetings with anonymous lovers – the ones she always smiled about – are now filling her thoughts. She has never experienced more than little flirting and a stolen kiss, but now, this man... Defenseless she waits to see what will happen.

A smile plays on the lips of Giacomo Giralmo Casanova. With an elegant sweep of his arm he removes his black three-cornered hat and from behind his bautta – a coat with a hood – he conjures up a red rose. How good it feels to be in Venice again, the inspiring backdrop for his most celebrated seductions. Nowhere in the world are the women so magnificent, so enchanting and so – he looks at Valentina – so defenseless. Nowhere does he feel more at home than at the carnival of Venice.

The carnival of Venice has a long and rich tradition. As early as the Middle Ages the city was the venue for the most spectacular and colorful parties in Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the carnival reached new heights of extravagance and, according to the moral crusaders of the day, decadence, which made it deliciously infamous. The months preceding Lent and its period of fasting (carne vale literally means bidding meat farewell) were filled with exuberant festivities. People from all walks of life could hide behind their mascheras nobiles (masks) and take part as anonymous equals in the mêlée of partygoers.

Even the differences between men and women were obscured by long coats that reached the ground. Anonymity allowed the temporary suspension of social guidelines and respectable citizens could, for a while, indulge themselves in ways otherwise frowned upon. Writer and womanizer Casanova, born in Venice, couldn’t have wished for a better opportunity to hone and perfect his courtship skills. Moreover, as the son of a dancer and actress, he had the blood of the theater coursing through his veins, and if Venice was his stage, then carnival was his spotlight.

A carnival worthy of its former glory

In the early 19th century, after Napoleon’s conquest of Venice, these exuberant festivities were abruptly stopped. And it was not until 1980 that there was another carnival worthy of its former glory. In the end the Compagnie della Calza, a group of carnival societies which had been involved in organizing the annual festivities since the 15th century, joined together with local artists to breath new life into the carnival. They declared Venice a theater where actors and audience became one. The Antichi and Nuove Cortese, prominent members of the Compagnie della Calza, organized theatrical and musical performances, literary matinees and bals masqués for the elite. Old customs like Gioco dell Uovo and the Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel) were reinstated. It was to become a homage to the grandiose fancy-dress feasts of the 18th century. Now, some 18 years later, the Venetian carnival has not only succeeded in living up to its previous splendor, it has even managed to upstage its own former glory.

The revival of the carnival also meant the revival of the Commedia dell’Arte Italian popular theater which originated in the 16th century. Traveling theater troupes performed plays based on folklore, in which the main roles were always the same. Each of these central characters always had his or her own mask, easily recognizable to any audience throughout the land. Part of the charm of the early commedia was the fact that it was based on improvisation. It was the playwright and “Son of Venice,” Carlo Goldoni (who wrote his first play at the age of eight) who gave the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte their fixed lines.

During the carnival nowadays, in addition to the fantastic costumes and mascheras nobiles, you will find all the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte. There’s the smart Pedrolino (Pierrot), the servant Arlecchino (Harlequin), the bragging Capitano, the lying Scapino, the beautiful Isabella and the joker Brighella. The funny thing is, they do not just look like these characters, wearing their masks and costumes. They act like them too. So if you meet the self-important Dottore Grazinao, he will talk loudly and incessantly with a Bolognese accent about very weighty matters.

Pantalone, the Venetian merchant with his exaggerated ways, will have a thick Venetian accent and will attempt to court every woman he sees. And should two or more of these characters meet, sparks will fly, much to the delight of the bystanders. Sexual innuendo and personal jokes form part of the wit and repartee, and the onlookers themselves often get caught up in these verbal onslaughts.

Perfection is the norm

The early morning mist lifts while a weak sun rises above the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore. Silently the waters of the Adriatic lap against the rows of gondolas on the quay of the Piazza San Marco. An enchanting peace pervades the city. On mornings like this, La Serenissima lives up to her name. Two timeless fairytale-like figures are leaning on the parapet of the bridge near the Palazzo Ducale. Their costumes and masks are magnificent. There are no plastic masks from the party shop or boring clown suits in Venice. Perfection is the norm. Who are they, these mysterious apparitions on this winter morning? Visitors to one of the exclusive balls which are held in the palaces at the Canal Grande, who, after a sleepless night, are enjoying the beginning of a new day together? Or a couple of early birds, preparing for the street theater which is about to start up again? Then they turn around and disappear without a sound into the labyrinth of streets and alleys. The bridge is empty again.

“Ciao Giovanni, come stai? And how’s your mother, better I hope?” asks a beautiful young woman with corkscrew curls and a long dress with a deep decolleté. The man in question wears a coat exquisitely embroidered with gold thread and a pair of black knickerbockers. He bows gracefully, kisses her hand and invites her to come and sit next to him. Everybody who is anybody is in Caffè Florian on the Piazza San Marco. This is the oldest café in Italy and, during the carnival, the domain of the Venetians who, with their 18th-century costumes, blend in perfectly with the rococo interior.

While outside people are pushing and shoving to catch a glimpse of these birds of paradise, inside the café the costumed clientele sip their drinks nonchalantly, pretending not to notice the gawking circus outside. The waiters have no choice other than to stop most people from coming in so as to protect this unique entourage. The crowd greets every splendid entrance and exit of nobility with “oh” and “ah”, standing aside to let them through. With their white-powdered noses high in the air, they stride past, oblivious to the flash of the cameras pointing at them.

The pigeons look down with resignation

It is the afternoon of Giovedi Grasso, the Thursday preceding Ash Wednesday, and tens of thousands of carnival goers are gathered on the Piazza San Marco. From the rooftops of the Palazzo Reale the pigeons look down with resignation on the square which usually belongs to them. A theater group, which is giving a performance on an improvized wooden stage in the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte has drawn a large audience. Children in fantastic costumes are playing hide and seek in the crowds. In the arcades professional street-artists are painting faces, juggling or braiding hair. Officially this is not allowed and, especially at the beginning of the carnival period, is strictly monitored by the police, but as the festival goes on the level of tolerance increases.

The wandering merchants – those lucky enough to have one of the handful of licenses issued by the city’s administration – choose strategic locations to sell confetti and masks to the tourists for too many euro. Goldoni once called the mask the world’s most democratic invention, meaning that when hidden by a mask everybody is equal. Is this why they are in such demand? The many souvenir shops in the streets flanking the square are filled with masks too. There are even some shops which just sell masks and nothing else, all year round. From rather simple ones, costing only a few dollars, to the most exquisite ones which are designed and made in ateliers and will set you back several thousand.

Andrea Bandini, owner of an atelier, says: “Every year we sell more masks than the year before. Sometimes I wonder where it will end. Months before the carnival we are already working overtime to meet the demand. This also goes for our colleagues in the sewing studios, who order material from Milan by the truckload. Many kilometers of silk and lace are transformed into festive dresses. For the shop keepers of Venice, the carnival is the highlight of the year.”

The carnival of Venice, revived in 1980 as a festival of and a festival for Venetians, is now attended annually by some 800,000 tourists (including dozens of television camera crews). All the hotels are full, reservations should be made months in advance, and access roads are closed during the last week before Lent. Nadine Le Bec from France says: “For us it’s a hobby. We work all year round to create a new costume, which then makes its debut in Venice. We have been coming here for ten years and each time we leave we make a reservation for the next year. We don’t want to risk missing it!”

Other stories about Venice