Behind the masks

Venetians say they don't go to the Venice Carnival - they leave the way clear for eager tourists. John Walsh dons a mask and joins the street parties in search of authenticity
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The Independent Travel

They're quite a sight, this fabulous couple processing in a slow, stately sweep along the Grand Canal beside Rialto Bridge. There's nothing girlish or sweet about the lady in the long, shimmering, magenta gown and green feather head-dress, nothing innocent about the vertical jungle of crow-black ringlets that crash around her rouged and powdered cheeks. She looks like the most worldly creature in Venice, a six-foot-four-inch courtesan turned consort to the spindly emperor by her side. He is also tall, but his long, expensive, white frock coat, embroidered at the pockets with Japanese-y swirls of flying bulrushes and accessorised with white knee breeches and black-buckled court boots, makes his skinny frame seem insubstantial. Frankly, anyone would look insubstantial beside his lady friend. She looks as if she might eat him for elevenses and tick him off for giving her indigestion.

They're quite a sight, this fabulous couple processing in a slow, stately sweep along the Grand Canal beside Rialto Bridge. There's nothing girlish or sweet about the lady in the long, shimmering, magenta gown and green feather head-dress, nothing innocent about the vertical jungle of crow-black ringlets that crash around her rouged and powdered cheeks. She looks like the most worldly creature in Venice, a six-foot-four-inch courtesan turned consort to the spindly emperor by her side. He is also tall, but his long, expensive, white frock coat, embroidered at the pockets with Japanese-y swirls of flying bulrushes and accessorised with white knee breeches and black-buckled court boots, makes his skinny frame seem insubstantial. Frankly, anyone would look insubstantial beside his lady friend. She looks as if she might eat him for elevenses and tick him off for giving her indigestion.

The canal-side crowd parts to let them through; everyone turns to gawp at this ultimate Venetian power-couple - and take in almost incidentally the revelation that the woman is a man with a Desperate Dan chin concealed under all the powder, and the gentlemanly grandee in the chalk-white fright wig is his girlfriend...

Welcome to the Venice Carnival, where, by the first weekend, sights like this come gliding towards you at a rate of 10 per minute. By the second Saturday, half of Italy seems to be milling about the city. From the Arsenale to the Accademia, you cannot move for clowns, minstrels (their bells a-jingling like a particularly enraging flock of goats), jesters, sun-and-moon combinations, concubines, harlequins and pantaloons. Particularly stylish is the classic bauta costume, the one you've seen a million times - a tricorn hat, a white mask with an indefinably cruel quality about its jutting chin, and a full, floor-length black cloak. You have to be tall to carry it off, but it's undeniably stylish. The brave choice is the Dottore della Peste look, in which the mask is a long, rather ludicrous hornbill beak (its name and history dates back to the plague, when nervous doctors breathed herbally-filtered air inside the long snout). You learn not to be startled when these crackpot apparitions approach you through the wintry air and the faint mist rising off the canals. Take a deep breath, you think to yourself, this is a carnival groover not a Hieronymous Bosch-fixated mugger.

It takes a while for the groovers to get going, however. On the evening I arrived - Thursday at 10pm in the middle of a water-taxi strike - there was literally not a soul on the streets of central San Marco. The only sound was the rasp of my suitcase's wheels, as I wandered through the freezing backstreets, up and down badly-lit little bridges and through narrow side alleys (alarming flashbacks to Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now) in search of my hotel, the brand-new and spankingly-chic Hotel Manin, where your bedroom window opens onto a view of the Grand Canal. Where was everybody? At midnight, in a piano bar beside the restored La Fenice opera house, a few stray revellers came by, looking for a drink. Their faces were painted on one side, a series of paisley-pattern curlicues swirling around the left eye. By 1am, as the organist swung into middle-period Barry White, the first mask appeared - a ladylike, sequinned little number in green, like a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.

By Friday lunchtime, I'd seen several beefy young men wearing jester's hats with long red-yellow arms sticking out at funny angles. (They might as well have had the words "I'm a total prat" embroidered on the side.) In the Campo San Polo, where a circus tent housed a dispiriting "Clowns' Factory", small children stood around dressed as Batman, Robin Hood, a ladybird, a witch; they ate popcorn in the chilly sunshine and threw handfuls of confetti at each other. In Campo S Silvestro, a brace of fat little fairies in blue chiffon, aged six, ran about screaming, pursued by a parent in a green crocodile head-dress. Elegant, expensively-tanned Italian women stalked by in fur coats, wearing masks beneath which webs of white lace stuck out like a frozen sneeze. But it was Saturday morning before these tentative gestures at carnival madness took off, the crowds arrived and the cross-dressing exquisites began to appear, like shy, mythical creatures.

The costumes can be disconcerting. Having a tall geezer in full-fig bauta costume come up and stand beside you on a vaporetto, humming with menace, is a nasty experience - it pitches you straight back to the Middle Ages when paranoid believers saw the Antichrist everywhere. It's equally unsettling to encounter a quintet of genderless creatures sitting silently around a table in St Mark's Square, clothed from head to foot in gold foil costumes, with the eye-slits of their masks filled with mirror-shades, their blank eyes glittering at you. Are they having a tea party? Are they a barbershop singing group? Are they special branch carabinieri? Or are they merely a bunch of furtive exhibitionists?

It's the latter, actually. Everywhere you look, ordinary-looking people from out of town are arriving for a few hours of showing off. Who is this grinning Turk in the powder-blue satin robes and spectacular, flying-saucer-shaped Sultan's hat? Why, it's Davide from Milan, a technician at the Siemens electronics plant. His wife Barbara, a Scheherazade dream in a complicated cloth-of-gold scarf and tiara, her face dotted with a pollen of expensive angel dust, also works there. They and their sweet daughter Alicia travelled down by train, three hours from Milan. Alicia is longing to see who will be crowned the carnival princess. No they aren't going to any parties or balls tonight. "We're just here to walk around and see the people," says Davide. On Rialto Bridge, I met Idoia and Pietro, dressed in orange velvet jerkins, skirts and white tights. She's Spanish, studying pharmacy in Milan. He's doing research in computer science. They are rather obviously in love. Yes, they're going to a ball tonight, at a palazzo near the station. It's costing €180 (£120) each. No, they won't know anybody else there but that apparently won't matter.

As you probably know, the carnival is terribly traditional. For unbroken centuries, revellers have milled through the streets of Venice like this, all dressed in masks, applauding the newly-crowned beauty queen, attending balls and....

Sorry, no, that's all complete lies. There is nothing "traditional" about any of this. The Venice Carnival that comes crushing past you these days is actually as fake as Father Christmas. It's a marketing man's dream. Like the "traditional" ploughman's lunch that was invented in the Sixties to sell more cheese in English pubs, the Venetian revels were invented - or rather reinvented - in 1979, as a brilliant way to promote Venice as a tourist destination in the winter. Before that, there hadn't been a squeak of carnevale for 120 years.

It was first heard of in the 13th century. The word "carnival" and its attendant terminology is about giving up, abstaining, mortifying the flesh, preparing for grim and unexciting times. They're words that anticipate the 40-day famine-and-drought of Lent, when good Catholics fast and abstain from meat and alcohol, to concentrate their minds on the death of their Redeemer. So "carne vale" means literally "Goodbye to meat" (and to booze, and dairy products, and dancing, and fun and games generally). The deadline for merry-making is Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. It's been known for centuries as "Fat Tuesday" (or Mardi Gras) because it's the day when the cooks in all the households have to use up, or throw out, all the fatty products in the kitchen, which won't be needed for 40 days. (Why do we fry pancakes on Mardi Gras? To finish all the surplus milk and flour we have in our larders.)

Byron, a huge fan of the Serenissima, was keen on this farewell to good times. You get the impression he liked a noisy party. His 1818 poem "Beppo" begins:

"Tis known, at least it should be, that throughout

All countries of the Catholic persuasion,

Some weeks before Shrove Tuesday comes about,

The people take their fill of recreation,

And buy repentance, ere they grow devout,

However high their rank, or low their station,

With fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masking

And other things which may be had for asking".

Nudge, nudge. By the 18th century, it had become a long gaudy night lasting from October to February, with jugglers, acrobats, tumblers, gambling, playlets and even jousting. Puppet shows vied with dancing dogs, performing monkeys and even * contortionist horses for the attention of the crowd. But things became more melancholy when the city came under Austrian rule.

In his cultural history of Venice, Martin Garrett quotes a contemporary account from 1861 by the American consul, William Dean Howells: "[The carnival's] shabby, wretched ghost is a party of beggars, hideously dressed-out with masks and horns and women's habits, who go from shop to shop, droning forth a stupid song, and levying tribute upon the shopkeepers. The crowd through which these melancholy jesters pass - regard them with a pensive scorn."

They still do. Talk to any home-grown Venetian and he'll first say, bitterly: "Yes, I am a true Venetian, and one of the very few left here," then complain that the event is as fake as a four-euro bit. "It's solely for tourists," said Graziano, a local photographer. "I don't know a single Venetian who loves the carnival or takes part. You've seen there are about a thousand shops selling masks? In 1982, I did a photo-reportage story about the only mask shop in Venice. Now it's all gone crazy."

He has a point. You simply cannot move, in the San Marco and San Polo districts, for mask shops. They are a great deal more than papier maché faces with blank expressions. Some are amazingly elaborate Arcadian fantasies in which the face is surrounded, framed, ruffed and all but overwhelmed by huge squat green leaves; orchid-like excresences of wild flowers; mad, bolted trumpets of orange and heliotrope. Some are chic and minimalist, a filigree of the finest silver, arranged like a torn butterfly wing along one cheek of an angelic face. Many window displays stop you in your tracks and draw you, mesmerised, into an eldritch Tim Burton fantasy frozen inside the glass. The best selection of hand-painted masks can be found at La Veneziana Atelier (Frezzeria San Marco 1135). The best dottore della peste masks are at Ca'Macana Venezia in the Dorsoduro district. They made the facial adornments worn in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. But if you simply want the most gorgeously-arrayed (and swooningly-sexy) masks in Venice, then head for La Cortesia (in Calle della Mandola) and be swept away.

You could argue that, for all its fakery, the new-style carnival has its own integrity and persona. And you'd be half right. The revellers themselves have bags of style, a hugely-competitive free market in dressing to impress and acting up a storm. The organisers of the modern festival, on the other hand, are pretty perfunctory in their idea of what constitutes a good time. This year, the carnival theme is "Orient Express", vaguely celebrating the city's ancient imperial connections with the Far East by inviting along a job-lot of Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Thai musicians and acrobats. There are perhaps a few too many events in which indifferent Indian street performers try to amaze the San Marco crowd with their skill on the jew's harp or the bongos. It's not exactly Carnegie Hall. "I think they chose Chinese and Indian acts this year," Graziano hisses in my ear, "because both the musicians and the instruments can be had dirt cheap." The climactic event of this Saturday evening is the Bollywood Brass Band and Yourgui Theatre. A fine Womad-style concert, no doubt - but hardly what the carnival is for.

So what is it for? On Friday night, I met a gaggle of disgruntled young Americans in Santa Croce. They'd been wandering the streets for an hour, looking for some action. "I mean," said Suzette from New York, "where's the carnival at? Where is it? Where are all the people?" Good question. "If you're looking for a bunch of glamorous types wearing masks and celebrating," said a rather beautiful Englishwoman nearby, "then the carnival is obviously you." They weren't convinced, but she had a point. It's the people who make it. "The carnival is fine as long as you're not expecting one big thing," said Davide Taddeo, the manager of the excellent Manin hotel. "It's the general atmosphere that's the point. It's an event where people can express themselves, can see and be seen."

By 6pm on Saturday, after you've been crushed among 70,000 people watching a mile-long procession of medievalists, jongleurs and cross-dressing curiosities; joined them in the Piazza San Marco to show off your mask, cloak and tricorn hat; taken photographs of the stunning Grace Jones figure in her blood-red sneer of a mask and the plague-doctor on her arm like a lecherous old heron; when you've watched the magnificent Puss in Boots being turned away from the doorway of Florian's café for being inappropriately attired and checked out the schoolgirl choir in their purple cloaks; viewed the Dante-faced roughnecks putting on a choreographed sword-fight for the amusement of the crowd and been told you cannot possibly miss the Columbina moment on Sunday morning when a young woman will fly down a wire from the top of the Campanile; when you realise they are going to keep doing this for another nine days - well after all that, you start to reflect that sometimes, authenticity isn't everything. The carnival may be a sneaky piece of self-conscious archaising, but the energy of its hectic exhibitionism is real and true enough.

Lord Byron might look down on the churls in the jesters' hats. But he'd still get stuck into Venice's fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking and masking and would (I'm quite certain) risk a word or two in the ear of the Grace Jones lookalike with the scarlet physiognomy.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly to Venice with easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyJet.com) from Bristol, Nottingham and Stansted; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Birmingham, Manchester and Gatwick; BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow; and Volare (0800 032 0992; www.volareweb.com) from Luton.

From Marco Polo airport, vessels belonging to the Alilaguna fleet depart every hour or so for Venice (€10/£7). There are two routes (rosso and blu), serving different parts of the city. The rosso is likely to be the most useful - stopping at Arsenale, St Mark's Square and Zattere. An express bus, run by Atvo, operates between the airport and the Piazzale Roma for €2.70 (£1.85). The ordinary bus, route 5,

costs 77c (£0.55).

STAYING THERE

John Walsh's trip was arranged by Exclusive Italy (020-8256 0231; www.exclusiveworldwide.com), which offers three nights at the Hotel Manin (00 39 041 296 0650;

manin.hotel-venezia.net) from £431 per person based on two sharing a double room overlooking the Grand Canal. This includes flights from London and breakfast.

Stepping down a few notches, the San Simon Hotel ai due Fanali (00 39 041 718490) is tucked away in the Campo San Simeon close to the Grand Canal, and has low-season doubles for as little as €93 (£66). The Pensione Seguso at Zattere 779 (00 39 041 528 6858) has an excellent location overlooking the Giudecca Canal. Unfortunately, it is closed until the end of February.

EATING

For excellent seafood in an unusual location, try Mistrà at Guidecca 212A (00 39 04 1522 0743) which is slightly off the beaten track on the first floor of a warehouse but affords spectacular views over the lagoon.

Alla Zucca at Santa Croce 1762, ponte del Megio, set in the peaceful district of San Giacomo dell'Orio

(00 39 04 1524 1570) is a good value establishment that serves meat and vegetarian dishes.

DRINKING

The city prides itself on its "bacari", rustic bars serving wine and snacks. One of the most authentic is All'Arco at San Polo 436, calle dell'Ochialer (00 39 04 1520 5666), located near the bustling Rialto markets. Another is Cantinone (già Schiavi) at Dorsoduro 992, ponte San Trovaso (00 39 04 1523 0034).

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