Venice is all dressed up for carnival time. But where is the party?

In Casanova's day it was an excuse for wildness, says Andrew Gumbel. Now the tourists have taken over
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THE PEACOCK couple made their assignation by the waterfront outside the Doge's Palace. With the glint of the morning sun on their saffron and periwinkle blue costumes, they gave each other a low stylised bow and stared intently into the beaky white masks hiding their faces.

In the bawdy days of carnivals past, this might have been a lovers' tryst to crown a long night of flirtatious debauchery. But in sanitised modern- day Venice, it was something altogether less exciting. The peacock couple waited for a small crowd to gather around them, unfolded their arms to reveal the gold-sequinned interior of their costumes (to "oohs" and applause as they did so) and spent the next 10 minutes being photographed by Japanese tourists.

It is hard to think of the Venice carnival these days as much more than a glorified photo opportunity. Granted, those meticulously tailored costumes - the robustly coloured harlequin suits and soft velvet doublets, the diabolical black-hooded capes and plunging multi-coloured ball gowns - look fantastic against the irresistible backdrop of the Piazza San Marco. It is remarkable that the designers and wearers of these outlandish outfits should spontaneously travel to Venice from the four corners of the world for the sheer pleasure of showing them off to the tourist groups and adult- education photography classes who have dutifully followed them into town.

But where are the parties that made carnival famous for the length of Venice's memorable decline in the 18th century? And where are the Venetians? By day, the carnival figures look like mannequins or stray theatrical extras, not the revellers they represent. By night, they are nowhere to be seen; for all but a handful of the festive 10 days the city slumps into its habitual slumber shortly after the bars and restaurants close around 11 o'clock.

Native Venetians make that sure they reach their souvenir shops and tourist restaurants early to catch the excellent passing trade, but otherwise carnival appears to leave them thoroughly apathetic. Most of the old city's population are pensioners who cannot stand the idea of late-night noise; rather than encouraging the festivities, they have recently been devoting their energies to closing one of Venice's few remaining rock venues.

When the Venice carnival was revived after a long hiatus in the late Seventies, the idea was to stage a proper festival, with music, poetry and plays oozing out of the city's theatres. But as the tourist numbers have swelled, all but one of the city's theatres have closed - or, as in the case of the Fenice opera house, burned down - leaving little by way of carnival venues.

The lone Teatro Goldoni is doing its best this year, putting on a crowded programme of events, including a play, a musical and concerts by Elvis Costello and David Byrne. Last night, Piazza San Marco hosted the inevitable masked ball, while tomorrow will see a parade of torchlit boats around the lagoon illuminated by fireworks.

These are isolated high spots, however. The event would seem strangely bloodless to the man providing the theme of this year's carnival, the pan-European bedhopper and occasional spy Giacomo Casanova, who died exactly 200 years ago and now has a statue to his name gracing the waterfront near the Bridge of Sighs.

In Casanova's day, carnival started in October and carried on until Lent. The masks and costumes broke down barriers of class and propriety and provided the perfect excuse for everyone, from noble ladies to footmen, to broaden the range and number of their sexual conquests.

Hair was piled outrageously high and necklines cut outrageously low; revellers would proceed from parades of wild animals, jugglers and tumblers to the theatre, and on to all-night sessions in gambling dens and whorehouses before appearing, dishevelled and exhausted, for the ritual morning parade of debauchees at the Rialto vegetable market.

Ah, those were the days. Venice is no longer a city of hedonistic decadence but rather a city of tourist scam artists and rip-off merchants who do not deserve the riches of their unique urban environment. Carnival can provide pretty colours, polite artistic events and the occasional high- profile concert. But if you are looking for a party, go to Rio.