Monday, February 8, 2016

A Craft-y Way of Increasing Venetian Presence in Carnevale

Giovanni Giusto, president of the Consorzio del Tajapiera Restauratori Veneziani, at work in Piazza San Marco

The large temporary structures built for Carnevale--the main part of which is the stage for various performances--change each year. Each version is elaborate, some may be more appealing than others, but this year's design seems to me to be the most successful of any of the five I've seen because of the significant effect it has had on one's experience of Carnevale.

Whether you like or dislike this year's design--and I just saw an indignant Venetian on Facebook who thought the designer's construction of a main stage that evoked both the Rialto and Tre Archi bridges to be a shameful diminution of the originals and an unforgivable act of pandering to tourists--the big difference this year are the smaller pavilions extending out from the stage along both the Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove. Each of these pavilions house different artisans working away at their craft, all of which have been historically important in Venice.

The stage of this year's Carnevale, designed by La Fenice's set designer, Massimo Checchetto

There are, naturally, mask makers and glass makers, shoe makers, creators of fine textiles and of historical costumes. There are stone cutters and wood carvers, hat makers, experts in gilding and in ironworking, and, of course, makers of gondolas and forcole (oarlocks) and oars. There's a grand gondola, beautifully fitted out with elaborate carvings of scenes from the Battle of Lepanto, gilding, and luxury upholstery--showing each of these crafts at its finest, and how each separate one was (and is) involved in the creation of the iconic floating emblem of Venice (which is also the purpose of the association of Venetian artisans known as El Felze).

When I'd seen these pavilions being built before the start of Carnevale, I'll admit I'd feared the worst: that they'd serve as corporate promotional showcases or retail spaces (something along the lines of The Golden Arches "I'm Lovin' It Carnival Experience", or the Swatch "Time to Party Zone"). In at least one previous Carnevale the public space of the Piazza had been demarcated into certain areas requiring payment (for example, to enter private boxes in La Fenice-style tiered seating on either side of the stage). Such demarcations, needless to say, work against any sense of Carnevale as a communal event; a sense which is supposed to be at the festival's core, and which is already hard enough to come by in a city whose dwindling local population can be inclined at times to cede the Piazza to overwhelming crowds of tourists.

One of the indoradóri, or gold-leafers, engaged in her specialty; an excellent small guide (in English and Italian) to woodcarving and gilding in Venice was available gratis at the pavilion, produced by the artisan association El Felze 

I was relieved to hear that the small pavilions would, in fact, be used by local artisans. But then I wondered if there might be something a bit dispiriting about this: if this collection of little structures might seem rather like a zoo of vanishing species. As if the only place such rare creatures as actual Venetians and working artisans might still exist in Venice was in captivity, on display.

But it doesn't feel that way--at least not to me. It may be that the sheer amount of knowledge and artistry on display and in action could simply overwhelm even the least promising or hokey of contexts. These aren't actors in theme park dioramas, but working artists, the vitality of whose work can't be missed, even if the vast majority of Venetians themselves these days are more likely to motor around in fiberglass boats than row hand-made wooden ones.  

Moreover, the presence of these artisans in Piazza San Marco seems to ground this edition of Carnevale in the local more than any of the previous four years I've experienced. One of the most surprising and disappointing things to me about previous Carnevales was how absolutely dead the Piazza could seem for most of the days.

For as interesting and substantial as any given tourist may be as an individual, a vast piazza filled with nothing but tourists can seem dismayingly spectral. It's not really a tourist's fault. Unless we're on a guided tour, or following our own strict itinerary, we usually can't help but drift as tourists (or plod, when we reach the point of exhaustion)--nor, perhaps, should we want to help it. We slip out from beneath the weight of our normal life as tourists.

Francesco Briggi of Atelier Pietro Longhi at work on a sewing machine

But a Piazza of tourists far from home with nothing to do but, at best, photograph other tourists far from home in costume, can start to feel more like a convention, as I've said before (which, for all the beauty of the Piazza, might as well held on board a cruise ship), than a Venice Carnevale.

The presence of the artisans, aside from everything else it does, seems to anchor the proceedings in contemporary Venetian life (even if the artisans are practicing ancient crafts). And from what I've witnessed, it seems to draw more Venetians to the Piazza. Venetians, who might in other years have thought of the Piazza during this period as a tourist-only space, now have a reason to stop in and see friends who may be working in one of the pavilions.

The pavilions serve, you might say, as outposts of Venetian-ness in otherwise occupied territory, and this is important in this small walking-oriented town, where familiarity and shared history and face-to-face contact are all still important. If you happen to be in Venice for this Carnevale, see if you don't notice a small group of locals chatting on the apron of one of the pavilions: one of them is an artisan on break, perhaps they are smoking and/or enjoying a drink, perhaps they are taking some interest in what's happening on the main stage--and none of them would be in the Piazza if not for the artisans' pavilions.

A Carnevale without the participation of locals is not much of a Carnevale, just as a Venice without Venetians will be no kind of city. Whatever else may change in next year's edition of Carnevale I hope the artisan pavilions in Piazza San Marco will somehow be maintained--which seems easy enough to do. While the issue of how to keep Venetians in Venice is rather more complicated. Though perhaps not entirely unrelated.

The gondola Giulia, "Queen of Venice", on display in Piazza San Marco

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