Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fat Tuesday - Carnevale in Venice

In places like New Orleans, today is known as "Fat Tuesday" or "Shrove Tuesday" - that crazy period of over-indulgence and partying before Lent and fasting begins in preparation for Easter. Coming from the Italian words for "meat" (carne) and "go away" (vale) is carnevale, or carnival - a farewell to meat. After studying in Venice and visiting friends (previously always in the summer), I wanted to see what carnival would be like. Years ago, I braved the nasty weather that goes hand-in-hand with Venice's marine environment for February. From my notes and recollections:

I arrive at Marco Polo airport at 10:30 a.m. then took the boat to the Castello area of Venice. I am headed to a palace that formerly housed one in a long line of Doges. A section of it with its ancient courtyard is now a friend's apartment as his family's weekend pied-à-terre. We walk for a little while with my suitcases through the winding streets.
Later, we pass through Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, and it's become very foggy. It is Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday) and revelers are already walking around in masks and costumes, posing and becoming one with the city's ancient landmarks. This time, Serenissima is everything I always imagined it would be. Eerie. Sinister. Even though it's late afternoon, it's already fairly dark. On certain streets, it is numbingly quiet- except for the clicking of the heels of a courtesan in colonial costume rushing off to one of the balls. This air of mystery is what inspired works like the psycho-thriller, Don't Look Now (starring a very young Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), Eyes Wide Shut, and Death in Venice. It is a place that oozes of history, intrigue, glorious imagery, and a longing for beauty just like Thomas Mann's novel.

We went briefly to the Casino for a jazz concert and reception. Strangely, I notice the Latin words, "non nobis" (not for us) emblazoned atop its entrance. After the concert, my friend and I walked towards home. Once again, I am taken with the silence of the city at such an early hour. There is no one around, and now all you can hear is your own hurried footsteps as you quickly stride through the fog and darkness. This place is bursting with secrets. We walk by the Church of the Miracoli, a virtual jewel straddling two canals. It is still unrelentlessly cold and damp. The baroque style costume balls held at some of the palazzi must be in full swing by now. The next day, I am grateful that there is a little bit of sun poking through the thick layer of clouds but it doesn't offer any warmth. We go for a walk to the Accademia Bridge area, and then to the busy Campo Margherita.

The water is very turbulent, and getting around is fairly difficult. The water is flooding the square acqua alta and the boards are out as tourists and residents alike teeter above the inky depths. I went to a mass for Ash Wednesday at St. Mark’s. Unbelievably, the water is ankle deep even inside the ancient church. The main area near the altar must be a little bit higher above sea level. The space is amazing, and it was emotional to be inside to see it in the manner it was intended and without a consistent flow of flashing cameras. I think of all the history here and feel a sense of place. Without so many people bustling through, the space seems oddly small. We go up to receive our ashes. They are sprinkled on the top of my head rather than displayed as a large blob X formation on the forehead as is done back home.
Afterwards, we walk the streets again towards a bacaro (a place for snacks) located near the train station, the Osteria Carbonera. It is an awfully raw night with the high water and driving wind mixed with snow. There are not many people out tonight. The restaurant has long wooden community tables that I love so much. There is a candle in a bottle on every table. Very rustic. The lighting is really low and moody, but the atmosphere is friendly and authentic. We came here to eat the last time I was in Venice just three years prior. Tonight, we are offered homemade wine and various spreads for our mini toasts. We take the vaporetto from Guglie and the turbulence in the water is striking near the Ospedale. My hosts hang out with me while I try to force everything I have into three bags.
The next day, the snow is actually accumulating and the water is quite violent again. I have to leave today. It's too bad I won’t get to see my favorite city with a layer of white. As I stare into the blank, lifeless eyes of the carnevale masks, I realize that I'm drawn to Venice again and again for unknown reasons. And, even though I didn't pay top dollar (some upwards of 450 Euro) to go to a costume party, or get dressed up myself, it was one of the best parties I've ever attended- thrown by the city as a whole.

Pictured above (and below left), is one of the more prominent figures of Carnevale known as the Bauta, usually portrayed as a white mask with a strange, projected upper lip and no chin, worn with a black cloak and a tri-corner hat.
The Bauta (left) and the beaked Plague Doctor (right). Other masks include the Moretta (a black circular velvety mask with netting worn by ladies), the Volta or Larva type, the Columbina, or the Pulcinella (a clown with a protruding nose), the harlequin, pantalone, among many other commedia dell'arte characters. Participation in Venice's festivities and the wearing of a costume during this time guaranteed total anonymity. The lack of identity leveled class systems and also fostered all sorts of roguish behavior from romantic encounters to criminal activity.
The party swirls around the feathered Fantasma at Florian's.

Confetti in Milan- the whole country is celebrating!
The inner sanctum of St. Mark's and some directions on the side of a wall in Sestiere Castello.


  1. What fantastic photos! Some of them are just oh so Eyes Wide Shut ...

  2. Thank you for stopping by, Alie. Glad you like them!

  3. Great post and very nice photos. Carnevale in Venice is really a spectacular event. It seems you've had a great time. Keep on the same way! Regards from me and Venice hotel .