The Weasel: Kings and queens in turbans and pearls rubbed shoulders with extraterrestrials
Saturday 07 March 1998
In Piazza San Marco on the following morning, the masquerade was gathering momentum. The immobile faces of the masks, made all the more disturbing by their compliant beauty, were an irresistible draw for the camera lenses of the gawping tourists. A good number of the participants were in full 18th-century drag of frock coat, lacy cravat and knee-breeches, but there were no hard-and-fast rules. Mysterious kings and queens, swathed in turbans and pearls, rubbed shoulders with extraterrestrials. The Pope and Fidel Castro strolled arm-in-arm.
Japanese tourists appeared to take a particular pleasure from donning masks, so taking their renowned inscrutability to new heights. Far from sharing my unease at the masks, Mrs Weasel grew strangely obsessed by them and began haunting the numerous workshops specialising in produzione di maschere. As hundreds of thousands of lire fluttered from her hands in exchange for elaborate constructions in leather and feathers, my own face was transformed into a mask of saint-like forbearance.
The more elaborate confections withdrew from public gaze at the end of the day, leaving hundreds of Casanovas (the legendary librarian was this year's official theme) to weave through the alleyways in endless congas along with sheiks, pussycats, Clockwork Orange droogs and moustachioed Mexicans. It took me a while to realise that they were not en route to some party. The whole of Venice was the party. On the beach at the Lido, I saw a Chinese courtesan partnered by a 6ft bumble bee. On the returning vaporetto, an elaborately veiled femme fatale chatted with a pair of Christmas trees festooned with baubles and tinsel.
Back on dry land - if anywhere in Venice can be so described - we shared a restaurant table with a pointy-hatted wizard and a woman dressed as the moon. Near the Rialto, a 20ft long, eight-person caterpillar bunched up realistically as it examined a menu. While crossing the famous bridge, Mrs W's dark suspicions were confirmed about the gender of many of the revellers who had adopted female personas. Tottering uncertainly on spindly high heels, a tulle-wrapped figure emitted distinctly baritone growlings from beneath its gorgeous full-face mask.
Having managed to draw my partner away from the blank-faced apparitions, we hit the culture trail. First stop was a medieval church called San Zanipolo. Though the colossal space was magnificent, I must admit to a morbid reason for our visit. I had retained a yellowing clipping from this very newspaper referring to an item in the church which the writer said: "I cannot recommend too highly." It was the foot of St Catherine of Sienna. After some searching, I spotted it sticking upright in a reliquary with gnarled black toes and the skin peeling off the rest of her foot (Mrs W thought it was size 4) as if the saint hadn't rubbed on enough sun factor 6...
The noir theme continued at the Rialto fish market, where I spent a good while musing over the trays of cephalopods. Cuttlefish cooked in its own ink is a speciality of the under-rated Venetian cuisine. Lacking cooking facilities, I pondered long and hard about the possibility of hauling a kilo or two of seppie in nero back on the plane, but memories of a previous misfortune, when some oysters I brought back from Amsterdam started leaking from an overhead locker, made me reluctantly decide against. An inky deluge would have taken a bit of explaining. Instead, I consumed a massive plateful of the creatures for dinner that night. Rich, piquant, unctuous, it was also, without doubt, the murkiest dish I've ever consumed. By the end, my napkin resembled one of those uncompromising works of black and white expressionism by Franz Kline. I bet they're washing it still.
At my pleading, Mrs W lugged round JG Links's acclaimed Venice for Pleasure during our perambulations of the city (she was the one with the handbag). As far as I know, this is the only tourist guide ever to have been serialised on Radio 4, but despite its wit and geniality, we rarely consulted the chunky tome. Too gabby, too few facts about opening hours and too ordered for born anarchs like the Weasel family. Instead, we turned to the Rough Guide, surely the closest modern equivalent of Baedeker. However, I don't know if "Rough" is the right appellation for its fastidious critiques: "Titian's Assumption is a piece of compositional and colouristic bravura for which there was no precedent in Venetian art."
Aside from the risk of bankruptcy by succumbing to the lure of a stratospherically priced cappuccino in Cafe Florian, one of the main dangers of Piazza San Marco is being biffed by a kamikaze pigeon. Plumped up by the peanuts of millions of tourists, they are described by Jan Morris as "honoured and protected, the most celebrated of the Venetian fauna". At one time, birdseed was carefully arranged in the piazza so the feathery army of consumers would spell out "Kodak" in snapshots.
But even the Venetians have tired of the mucky blighters. Posters have gone up round the city in Italian, English, French and Japanese announcing a ban on feeding feral pigeons. "Contravention of regulations will involve an administrative sanction of 1 million lire," it warns. This titanic penalty loses some impact when you realise that it is the equivalent of pounds 340. The old lady distributing peanuts on a pavement adjoining the Grand Canal seemed careless of the consequences. Another factor which may impede the effectiveness of the ban is that "Piazza San Marco and environs are excluded". Well, it wouldn't do to upset the tourists.
Despite its reputation for pleasure, Venice is also a place of astounding energy. You don't build an empire merely by sipping Bellini. It is claimed that in medieval times, the 16,000 workers at the Arsenale shipyard could construct a warship from scratch in a single day. I pooh-poohed this as a typical piece of Venetian braggadocio until I saw a similar feat taking place in a canal adjoining our hotel. Almost 100 yards of stone pavement were dug up and a metal gantry installed. A coffer dam had been put in place to provide a dry environment and work had already started on a new pavement. All this was achieved overnight. Can you conceive how long the same job would have taken here? So much for the Protestant work ethic.
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