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Unmasking the Carnival of Venice

Every year, the month of February witnesses the crowd navigating its way through the narrow alleys and streets of Venice to reach the one and only one place – St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco). Cafes and Restaurants are jam-packed with aristocrats from the 18th century.  The masked figures move like a pied piper followed by a trail of photographers who try to get a glimpse of them in their aristocratic finery.

I boarded the train from Milan to Venice via Verona. By the time I reached Verona to catch the connecting train to Venice, I was shocked to see that the train was standing room only – I ended up standing for the duration of my journey to Venice.  I reached Venice and grabbed my hot chocolate from GROM. The sight of the beautiful Grand Canal opposite the S.Lucia railway station greeted me on arrival. I had seen this place several times in postcards and movies. The first thought that came to my mind was seeing Johnny Depp speeding in one of the water taxis splashing the waters on the bystanders – a scene from the movie The Tourist! The Grand Canal boasts of 170 houses along its banks most of which were built between 1200 and 1700. Most of the traffic in Venice till date runs through the Grand Canal. That day was no exception!  We all followed the trail of the Grand Canal to reach St. Mark’s Square where the Carnival of Venice was being celebrated.

It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinths of quiet canals and narrow streets of  Venice.  Many of them turn at odd angles and some of them pass beneath the bridge. At one point of time, they all begin to look the same.  Wandering in the streets of Venice is as much an act of faith as it is of curiosity.  The charm of Venice is that it still oozes tradition and history with its lack of modernization.   You come across gondola riders on each bridge trying to lure the tourists to pay a hefty price of 80 euros for a trip down the narrow canals.

I walked past several stores watching the people haggle on the prices of the masks to wear at the carnival.  I captured the festive mood at one of the restaurants where the masks were made of dough.

The history of the Venice Carnival dates back to 1162 marking the victory of Venice over Aquileia (an ancient Roman city in Italy).  In the honor of this victory, people gathered in San Marco square and started to dance and celebrate.  However the history of masks dates back to the 9th century.  The masks were worn to hide the wearer’s identity and social status and allow the wearer to act more freely with the other members of the society.  In 13th century, a law was introduced to forbid masked people from gambling but the practice continued regardless. By the time of the Renaissance, masks became a standard fixture of the Carnival celebrations. By 18th century, the festivities heightened and it encouraged lust and pleasure.  Venetians were allowed to wear the masks for six months a year. Comedians, masquerades and gambling houses drew visitors all around the year.  Black velvet masks were worn in the houses of ill-repute to shield the identity of the owners.

With the Austrian conquest of Venice in 1798, the use of masks were forbidden. In 1930s, Mussolini banned the celebrations altogether.  After a long absence, the Italian government decided to revive the Carnival in 1979.   Since then, millions of visitors adorn themselves in pretty medieval costumes and masks to celebrate the Carnevale di Venezia.

Today after Mussolini, Venetians are fighting a bigger foe – the tourists! I could feel the locals getting irked by the crowd blocking their way and slowing them down.  Seeing the Bridge of Sighs crowded with hundreds of tourists, I felt like swearing rather than sighing!  There were many colorful costumes but what grabbed my attention was a group of men each dressed beautifully to resemble the Queen of Britain.  They walked on stage with their walk and demeanor matching that of the Queen.  Carnival of Venice is all about the idea of disguising oneself  and  enjoying the freedom that anonymity brings.

Flickr-Venice Carnival

Copyright ©2018, Lakshmi Nair. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.


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