Venice’s Carnevale: Masked Men and Posers

A gust of icy, snow blows through Piazza San Marco. It grabs umbrellas from startled tourists and tosses them through the air. As bright yellow awning snaps and flaps, a cafe chair bounces along the ground.

It’s cold, gray, and miserable outside. The party continues, despite the miserable weather that keeps the gondolas anchored to the piers and the temporary out-of-work gondoliers, It is said that “All the earth’s a stage” but it is more true in Venice, Italy during Carnevale.

I feel uncomfortable because the city has seen an increase in population. This is compounded by the many umbrellas that poke at my eyes. It’s all worth it, I think as I pass a man in a dark cape, powdered hair, and tri-cornered helmet.

It’s almost like you wake up in a dream or nightmare depending on your frame of reference.

Everyone who is anyone is there: Marie Antoinette is looking a little pale but still has her head and is alive and well. Three tall men in blue-sequined sandals, six inches tall (15 cm), are seen dancing as China dolls while a drag queen dances in a blue-sequined dress.

Many people don’t dress up as someone in particular. In fact, most of them barely look like people. It’s vibrant, wild, and fun. In fact, John Evelyn, an English writer, wrote that “All the world was there to see the folly, madness.”

It is mad. Carnevale (from Carne Vale, which means “farewell meat”) is the traditional period prior to Lent. It’s the beginning signal to let go of inhibitions and hair. The 18th century Carnevale started on December 26th and lasted for almost two months, until Shrove Tuesday. The Carnevale of today is a 12-day affair, which is quite calm compared to its earlier debauchery.

Things got out of control so Napoleon intervened to stop it. In 1979, the event was reactivated to aid the struggling tourist industry in the winter months. It’s been a great success, as you can see.

Carnevale costumes can best be described as the result of imaginative thinking. They can be rented, assembled from various outfits, or completely handmade.

The piazza’s posturing is more fascinating than the elaborate costumes. It begins slowly, much like a bizarre ritualistic mating dance.

A single costumed reveler emerges from nowhere early in the week. He climbs up to a column beneath the Doge’s Palace… and strikes a pose. Professional photographers and tourists alike quickly surround the subject to capture their images, much like bees in a hive. One photographer pleads with the subject to move toward his camera, “Madame Madame”, he says.

This is the ultimate paparazzi-feeding frenzy. There are no complaints from those who are being photographed. They not only enjoy the attention but actively seek it out. This makes me think there may be more to this place than meets the eyes. As I fight with the crowds, trying to position myself for the best shot, I start to wonder what makes them tick.

Tina B. Tessina (psychotherapist), author of It Ends with You: Grow up and Out of Dysfunction says that “in a mask, you can do all kinds of wild things that you wouldn’t be able to do in person.” Masks give people the freedom to act outside of their boundaries. Remember that kings and queens used to hold masked balls in order to get away with their bad behavior. Tessina says that the point is to act in a way you wouldn’t normally, and be excited about your behavior, knowing that you are being watched, but not identified.

Me, I made the error of going as myself. Nobody in Venice knows my identity. Erin, a friend, hands me a black cat-eye mask she bought before she left the United States. It’s easy to slip it on, but it makes it more noticeable than anonymous. It makes me feel like people are looking at me. My vision is also impaired by the mask, making it difficult for me to see through the viewfinder on my camera. This “mask”, I know, I hide behind often.

My camera gives me the ability to approach people and situations anonymously and boosts my confidence to act in ways that I wouldn’t have done without. I am a bold and aggressive photographer. Anything to get the shot. I guess I’m no different from those wearing traditional masks. However, we are looking at the lens from opposite sides.

Everywhere you look, there are spontaneous photo sessions. A mermaid is seen holding court on a fog-infested beach while a pair if jesters dressed in matching green satin pajamas pretend to dance. They dance, and photographers have a few seconds to capture it. Five seconds later they switch their stance and face a new group of eager shutterbugs.

These little dances between revelers and photographers are common throughout the piazza. Each pose is followed by a gesture, and then there’s the synchronized whirring of cameras.

The number of jesters and dukes, duchesses and other strange creatures increases as the week progresses to Fat Tuesday, the Carnevale’s grand final. Carnevale is a swirl of color, sound, and it grabs you by your collar and pulls you underneath before swallowing you whole. There is no escape, but only letting go. It’s better to just surrender. This century’s party will likely continue for another hundred years, or as long as Venice is afloat.



Tourist Board of Venice

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