OF GONDOLAS AND YET MORE MASKS
Search of the Venice Carnival-2
day finds us no closer to Carnevale. What's worse, the sunshine
that had animated the crystal-cold Venetian weather and sky
like gilt-edged Murano glassware, has been summarily recalled
today into some deep grotto beneath the canals. We are left
with a chill, overcast and ordinary world made only less ordinary
by virtue of the setting which is uniquely Venice. Yet of Carnevale
there is no hint.
medieval popular tradition of a last riotous submersion into
worldly pleasures before the month long religious austerity
and fasting period of Lent prescribed by the church of that
time (thus the term 'Carne-vale' or farewell to flesh) seems
in this present day Venice to have skipped the carnal part entirely
and entered the vale of restraint. Once, Napoleon had put a
stop to the voluptuous mass revelry, the eating, drinking, gambling
and dalliance, not just between the sexes but between the classes--made
permissible by the use of the face-saving or face-obliterating
device of the mask, and the demands of tourism had revived the
celebration in its symbolism, at least, resurrecting its frolicsome,
costumed, caped and masked aspects. But where are those myth-making
tourists? Or are we pursuing an empty myth ?
call solicitously on our cell phones as we float mask-less around
the city. We know they were half expecting to feel jealous of
the fun we are supposed to be having. Our indifferent replies
feel worse to them than if we had gloated, "Oh! You can't
imagine, the colour, the noise...."
to ignore the purpose of our visit and change our destination.
Today my friend will show me her Venice (the one of the past
seen meticulously through a guide book) and I will take her
to mine (an unguided free fall into the everyday world of Venice,
walking to its far flung quarters on foot). Cathedrals and religious
paintings are her passion, so we go to seek out the art and
tombs of Canova and Tiziano (Titian) in one famous church and
to visit the enthroned Madonna of Donatello or Bellini in another.
I am disgracefully inept at concentrating on traditional Christian
art by the great masters for any uninterrupted length of time.
I am overwhelmed by the gem-like sheen and rustling folds of
fabric brought to life by the sheer genius of painters who used
colour, contour, light and shade like a hypnotist bringing back
a somnolent subject to wakefulness. All the paintings I see
melt into one sensation to me--- a visual gasping for breath.
I need air!
of the church into the blinding sunshine, I notice a side door
advertising a modern art exhibition called 'La Gondola: da Giotto
a Picasso.' The sub-heading catches my eye. 'Çollezione
impossible...an improbable collection'! I am excited; I smell
my kind of art: not only less sombre than religious art but
probably quirky and witty as well. Inside, I am thrilled; it's
indeed my thing. It is the conjunction of fiction and painting:
a contemporary artist has recreated a series of fictive attempts
at what the great masters would have painted had they come to
Venice and made the gondola their subject.
some of the famous painter's signature techniques and adopting
what would have been their attitudes to Venice's characteristic
light and gondolas, he recreates original works similar to these
painters’ styles. Giotto, Caravaggio, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Paul
Klee, Modigliani, Magritte, Picasso and others hang shoulder
to shoulder in a riot of colour and lines, each painting supplemented
by a charming postscript that gives a make-believe explanation
of how the work came to exist. A delightful confluence of the
imagination of literature meeting visual fantasy.
I feel optimistic
now that Venice is not just a stilted showcase but a real place
where contemporary art lovers and artists can still visualise
this city with renewed passion. But where oh where is the legendary
carnival gaiety and verve, unchecked and yet hidden by costumes
and masks? Why are the plastered expressionless faces still
hanging in stalls and shop windows and not put to use wiping
the mysteries of human emotions, the sinister or seductive smile,
the glint of sadness or mockery in the eyes?
On our way
to our evening's Vivaldi concert we pass an English woman in
full regency costume. We stop to stare. Even the Venetian locals
stop mid-stride, and some actually hug and kiss her. Finally,
a lone flag bearer of Carnevale!
morning (Saint Valentine's day) dawns bright and spring like.
We saunter towards St. Mark's to say goodbye before our late
afternoon train back to Rome. As we round the corner to the
piazza a group of veiled and masked creatures in bright rustling
gowns come rushing past us like a host of exotic parakeets.
Then, the sight in the square that meets our eyes has us rooted
to the ground. We are in the middle of a medieval pageant! The
black and white page from our yesterday has been transformed
into an illustrated colour plate of the fairy tale Carnevale
we had imagined.
We are jostled
by crowds of elaborately costumed kings and queens, noblemen
and women, pages, knights, clowns, jugglers, princesses of the
orient, sultans of the east, slaves, executioners, Victorian
gentlemen, Regency dukes and duchesses, ladies from the court
of Versailles, harem girls, popes, harlots, Vikings, Anthony
and Cleopatra, Roman centurions, gladiators, Nero and even a
giant Violin playing itself! In cloak and lace, in armour and
robes, powdered wigs, feathered hats and diaphanous veils, on
heeled boots and silk slippers, with faces masked or painted,
the whole world has descended on the stage of San Marco and
around it to celebrate Carnival.
kinds of music play in each corner. Trumpets blow, drums beat;
there is fencing going on at one end, a mime show in another;
Medieval dancing to the right and juggling to the left. We put
on our masks and join the revellers in their promenade. It is
hard to breathe on the bridge of Sighs much less stop but my
cell phone rings and I elbow a chalk faced Juliet to answer
it. "Happy Valentine's day," my husband offers consolingly.
I give a noisy whoop and at long last, through my skewed mask,
holler into the phone: "Oh! Wish you were here! You can't
imagine, the colour, the noise, the atmosphere.........”
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