Usually at this time of year, one begins to recount the joys and adventures of the year. It seems that no matter where I travel, I learn something new and find incredible adventures. The most unusual trip I took in 2014 was to Venice, Italy where I traveled during Carnival, something I had longed to do for years, but never managed to arrange. For me, a trip to Venice is tantamount to a mountain climber reaching North Base Camp of Mount Everest. I never tire of that city, and yes, I have visited there eight times so far. It was evident I was headed to Venice before I left the city of the first leg of my trip, Munich, Germany. After I was seated on the plane leaving Munich, I glanced over to the seat directly across the aisle from mine. There, in a clear plastic tub, similar to those old fashioned cake carriers sold at Tupperware parties in the 60's, was a gorgeous, blond, curly, voluminous Louis IV style wig, encased in all its glory like a severed head waiting for its death mask, tied up with a red, shiny, satin ribbon. I knew at that moment that my week in Venice would be grand. I heard chatter all over the plane in Italian, English and German, and saw many oversize suitcases being loaded into our plane, most likely filled with Baroque creations for Carnival. The conversations I understood were all about contests and parties in palazzos on Venice's Grand Canal. I was not coming to dress in a Marie Antoinette gown or even as one of her ladies in waiting, but to photograph this famous yearly ritual. The anticipation was palpable.
Carnevale is the last celebration before lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent has historically been the time before Easter when many Catholics deprive themselves of something they enjoy. The thought is to party until you drop and spend the period of Lent recovering. Celebrations are held all over Italy from Venice and Milan down to the villages and towns of Sicily. The celebration of Carnevale is the Italian version of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In Ivrea, a small town in Piemonte, Carnevale has been around since the 1600’s. The celebrations begin with a masked ball followed later in the week by the Battaglia delle Arance where people throw 400 tons of oranges. The throwing of the oranges is an enactment of an uprising by the people against those in power. After all the oranges are thrown, the various combatants sit down to a feast of codfish and polenta.
Each spring in Venezia, Halloween meets haute couture. This ultimate, over-the-top, flamboyantly surreal masquerade party draws nearly three million visitors each year. As soon as I disembarked the motor boat which took me from Marco Polo Airport to the main island, trudged through the stony streets bumping along all my luggage and camera gear, located my hotel beside the famous Fenice Opera, and ditched all my belongings in my cozy room, I hurried to the streets with my camera to observe the masses. There, I saw feathered headdresses, flowing capes, and a bevy of bejeweled masks as costumed beings spilled onto the streets in every direction. I soon discovered that Piazza San Marco is the epicenter of the frenzy as the Maschera piu Bella contest runs daily to name the best costume. A temporary outdoor theater is erected on Piazza San Marco where dozens of masked men and women culminate to parade their showy selves down the runway of the Gran Teatro. I saw everything from the utmost elaborate costume such as kabuki princesses, queens with hooped skirts so wide they could only walk single file down a sidewalk, or court jesters in screaming chartreuse tights, to simple blue smurfs, tacky overweight inflatable chefs, sequined angels and glittering wolves and rabbits. Most costumes are quite elegant, but some are in very bad taste. I found that the later the evening wore on, the tackier the costumes became. The masks, however, make the outfits, and all tourists are encouraged to wear a mask even if they do not choose to don a velvet cape from the 17th century. The costumes are judged by famous costume designers who feel that in order to win, the costume must be not only stunning but original with explosive color and design.
Wait! There in front of me are two men posing. One is wearing a gilt tapestry dress with effervescent ruffles. He resembles a slice of lemon meringue pie. His face is painted but he is wearing no mask. He stops, poses for the crowd with oddly stiff expressions. His companion is so overweight, he can barely stand in his 1.5 inch buckled leather shoes. He is clad in an off the rack King suit and carrying a Diamonique scepter in his pudgy hands. On his head, sits a three pointed hat decorated in three pounds of ostrich feathers. I go in for the shot, but have to trip an Asian man to throw him off course so he can't walk in front of my camera. The photographers here are quite aggressive at times, and people are stepping in front of me. I raise my camera high to capture that bright orange thing over there. And then I see it- a man wearing what appears to be a three-foot wide chandelier on his head. Next to him are two other characters who seem to be horses galloping sideways through the campo. These are men on stilts wearing horse heads and embroidered saddles. I wonder who is playing the horses asses. It is so Cirque du Soleil. A Spanish woman bumps my arm as she meanders through the crowd. I watch her bulldoze her way in front of the photographers and take a shot, then wander off toward the Vaporetti. Perhaps she's inebriated. I always feel a bit more courageous after a glass.
Suddenly, the carnival seems to have its own set of rules. Letting tourists take pictures whenever and wherever, as far as I can figure, is some sort of unspoken rule in Venice. There is a method to this madness. As Chandelier Head tires of being photographed and walks away from the crowd, another tourist approaches him for a photo. He stops, which creates an entirely new crowd of onlookers, and the situation replays. Quickly, I learn to maneuver, push ahead, hip check anyone in the way, and get the shot.
As I spent an entire week in Venice, I observed so many people, and such a cornucopia of costumes that I came to understand the underlying sense of freedom that one attains when wearing a carnival mask. The mask is actually a portal for the imagination to have a sort of out-of-body experience. When you wear a mask, it gives you a special freedom to hide who you really are from the world, or at least who the world thinks you are. You disengage from your real self and become suspended in a lost era. It is more than simply attending a party. It is a transference of soul, body and mind to another time, another place, and another personality.
As I photographed these ethereal costumed beings, they posed willingly and longingly as they gazed dramatically into my camera lens, sometimes caressing my camera with a gloved finger. (I wondered where that glove had been.) They would walk on, after a paparazzi frenzy of about ten minutes of posed shots, then slither through the crowds seeking another vantage spot from which to draw attention from more cameras and onlookers. The eyes are all I could see of their actual bodies. The masks hide expressions and emotion, dewy young skin, or sagging lines. Even inadequate dental care is not obvious. I didn't know the age of the person behind the mask, and sometimes the sex was an enigma. After a person puts on a mask, the transformation became evident. The masked person is playful, energetic, glamorous and outgoing. A masked person actually becomes a character in a perfect film.
One of the most memorable moments I had that week was when I stopped to peer into a glowing window of the famous Caffe Florian alongside Piazza San Marco. The man sitting at the window was wearing a fully masked head of a wolf, in a white cotton Pirate shirt and billowy silk trousers, as he photographed his partner dressed as Queen Elizabeth, complete with fan and pearls. A more thorough look around the room revealed a flock of women wearing tall white wigs and 18th century gowns made of velvet and lace, all pouring themselves tea from silver services and eating crème broulee. I soon found out they were disguising themselves as Marie Antoinette's tea servants. For at least 15 minutes, it seemed as if I were also in their dream.
As the Venetian culture seems so inspired today by Carnival and all that it entails, I found it hard to believe that this festival was actually banned by Mussolini's fascist parties in the 1930's and only relatively recently revived by local Venetian artisans in the late 1970's. There were parties in countless palazzos the week I was in Venice, and many tickets sell for more than 500 Euros. The origins of the masked carnival remain a mystery although many believe that the festival originated in the 12th century to mark a military victory. Today, the city showcases Venetian culture during this time frame and many of the entities behind the masks are hired by the city of Venice to add charm to the ambiance for tourists.
As I wandered the streets, I explored a plethora of mask shops where authentic Venetian artists create these works of wonder by hand on a variety of substrates. Venetian masks can be made of leather or porcelain, or can be created by using the original glass technique. The original masks were much more simple in design and decoration. Nowadays, most of them are made with the application of gold leaf and gesso and are all hand-painted using natural feathers and gems as decoration. It is a shame that many knock off masks are infiltrating the market from China, causing a great deal of concern to the authentic traditional mask artists who pass their trade down from generation to generation. Nevertheless, the real thing is available in Venice, and many artisans will allow you to watch as they create their masterpieces. I felt particularly fortunate that I was allowed to photograph them at work as well as their finished pieces.
My one piece of solid advice from this experience is this: Do not attempt to dress in costume for Carnevale. No, I did not buy a ticket to a masked ball. I did not even wear a small Cat Woman mask as I ran the streets with my camera to capture all the glory for posterity. I firmly believe that you can come to Venice as an onlooker, (a traveler or a photographer) and not as a participant in this infamous Carnival, and still revel in its uniqueness and eccentricities. There is plenty to experience about Carnival by walking the streets, partaking meals in the cafes, and attending the theater. In fact, I did see hoards of teenage girls from Nebraska who painted their faces with sparkly butterflies, and several elderly Germans whose makeup was so harsh they glowed from across the Campo. I saw youths from Bologna wearing three-faced masks with peacoats and scarves, and goth girls with pink hair and black capes, but I chose not to be one of those. I strongly advise leaving the pageantry of this event to the professionals who are either paid by the city or to those who employ their own live in seamstress who can create these other worldly outfits and Voguish cover shots.
Venice is definitely one of the most interesting cities I have ever been in. It's flavor changes with the events of the seasons. I never fail to enjoy exploring its alleyways and canals, nursing a latte in a sidewalk café, or boating out to surrounding islands filled with crystal and lace. Venice is, of course, picturesque, charming, magical, a city that floats on water. It has become a sort of Disneyland for adults. It is an unreal place of romantic charm, but come to Carnival one year and be transported through time. You will not regret your visit. Come see the throngs of fabulous fashionistas who hide behind the masks! Come throw some oranges and then sit down to a feast of codfish and polenta!
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)