Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Some Notes on Carnevale on a Quiet Night

The first of two views from Ponte Santa Ana in Castello, taken at 11 pm last night
"Carnevale Boom: 130,000" was the headline on Il Gazzetino the other day. I'm afraid I didn't buy the paper or read the article; I'd had enough of those boomers just walking around the city.

However, last night at 11 pm on Via Garibaldi there were almost none to be seen. Just four young men speaking English. A couple of them wore tri-corner hats, and I suspect all of them may have been wondering where everyone was, as Via Garibaldi was deserted and dark.

If they were expecting an enticing array of available women, I'm afraid they were over 200 years too late. If they were expecting festive locals ready to party, they were most certainly in the wrong hemisphere. They should have booked their flight to Rio.

Most Venetian adults are none-too-excited by Carnevale. Some are downright annoyed by it; like the elderly Venetian man Jen reported seeing on a bridge near San Marco who, tired of being jostled by oblivious tourists in cheap masks, launched an extended volley of maledictions upon everyone around him.

A second view from Ponte Santa Ana, Castello
Except for the fun, educational and free Carnevale dei Ragazzi at the Biennale--now in its 4th year--most Carnevale events organized by the for-profit private enterprise that now oversees it have all the spontaneity and "local color" of cruise ship entertainment.

It wasn't always like this. Our neighbor, who's lived in the city for all of his 70 years, said that for the first couple of years after Carnevale was reborn in 1980, gangs of youths resembling Malcolm McDowell's anti-social posse in A Clockwork Orange roamed the centro storico and pelted revelers with rotten eggs and flour.

But by the third year the authorities had gotten such anarchic elements under control, and our neighbor and his wife still recall with great fondness certain costumes they saw over 25 years ago. At that time it was the norm for entire families to dress in a common theme. They remembered one family whose members came dressed elaborately as pharaohs, and another as pencils. Some families from the mainland came dressed as campagnoli, or peasants. All of the costumes were made by hand.

Now, with the exception of those Venetians who are paid to dress in 18th-century costume--like a friend of ours who gives lessons in traditional dances at private parties--you'd be hard-pressed to find an adult native here who thinks of Carnevale as anything more than something for kids. And with few exceptions, most of those kids are wearing Spiderman or Fairy Princess costumes purchased at the Disney store.

You can sometimes still find families in costume, but they probably won't be Venetians. Monday, on our way home from his school, Sandro and I stopped in Piazza San Marco to watch the late afternoon costume competition held there daily during this week. There were in fact two families in the running that day onstage: one from America, one from France. Having seen them up close, I was especially impressed by how well-made the French family's Louis XIII-era costumes were; obviously all done by hand.

Alas, though they made it out of the first round of audience voting, they didn't come close to the finals, which were won by a couple in the kind of costume I must admit I find least appealing: the shimmery, glittery, robed and veiled and porcelain-faced full-mask type. The kind that makes me think less of the Venetian Republic than of some horrific 1970s highway collision between the wardrobe tour buses of Kiss, Spiders-from-Mars-era David Bowie, and early Roxy Music. Of course, I know I'm firmly in the minority in this opinion, as this look has become synonymous, on calenders and in newspapers, with Venetian Carnevale.  

In any case, Sandro had a great time. We sat at one of the cafe tables in front of the stage and the wait staff gave him a large placard with which to cast his vote while he sat sipping his 5 euro glass of Fanta (twice the usual cost).

When I asked him if he'd be interested in going up there in costume next year, though, the Venetian in him came out and he shook his head emphatically NO. 


  1. We first came to Carnevale in 1988 and somehow it WAS more refined then. I remember seeing the family Mozart- 10 year old Wolfgang, his sister and father. Such a pretty sight. And the statue- a guy hold a huge conch shell from which poured real water into another on the floor.On Shrove Tuesday we watched the death of carnival as a gondola was paraded down with flaming torches from the piazza to the bacino. It was set alight and floated out to San Giorgio at which point huge fireworks exploded behind the church. My wife and I returned to the piazza the next morning, Ash Wednesday, and had the square to ourselves except for the guy sweeping up the confetti. Magical. We are coming again next week but it won't be the same as that first time.

    1. That does sound marvelous, Andrew--in only the 8th year after it was re-started. Sometimes I wonder if one of the differences is that, 25 years later, we are another whole generation removed from not just more Venetians living in Venice, but more Venetians living here who worked in something other than the tourist industry. More than a generation removed from actual fishermen and people who worked in the factories on Giudecca, for example, that made clothing and so on. If your work now is based entirely on tourism year-round, I suspect Carnevale seems/feels different to you. But I don't know, just a hypothesis...

  2. C'est si paisible, j'ai vraiment envie de me balader avec vous...
    Je préfère être là dans les ruelles désertes que sur la piazza dans la foule. Le carnaval n'est pas trop la période que je préfère même si j'y suis allée plusieurs.
    à bientôt

    1. Yes, Danielle, there's no peace quite like the peace of Venice, when it's quiet enough to sense, or at least imagine, its long history. I never like to see the stage being set up in the Piazza--before New Year's Eve, or Carnevale--but, as Sasha, points out in his comment, that's what Venice depends on now. But even at such times, one can still find peaceful places in early morning or late night.

  3. We may like or dislike the Carnivale but without it the Venice's economy would have suffered greatly.

    This December I was seeing almost all the cafes and restaurants empty - or with just 2-3 patrons inside - even during meal times. Fish market at Rialto was without customers - the chefs are not buying because there are no clients and the locals are few and they mostly look and touch.

    My hotel was half-empty - even with the rates that are 3-4 times less than the peak-season tariffs.

    I've got a very acute impression that every owner and employee can't wait for the Carnivale to come and save their businesses.

    1. Yes, Sasha, you've just told the story of contemporary Venice & its economic monoculture. It's not tourism, per se, that's the problem, it's that there is nothing else: the early 20th-C industries that were developed to pull the city out of the dire poverty the followed the fall of the Republic (& all through the 19th C) was destructive and unsustainable, but only tourism has replaced it. Actually, the Biennale has also been very helpful to the city, and, in fact, I appreciate the educational & cultural programs put on by the Biennale much more than those put on by the private firm in charge of Carnevale.

    2. Do you know that San Lorenzo finally opens and it's given to Mexico as a home to the country's Biennale exhibitions?

    3. Yes, it's been open since the architectural biennale and though I don't remember the exact arrangement, it hasn't been given to Mexico. For a certain number of years Mexico has committed itself to certain renovations or some such thing..