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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 145 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

March 12, 2004

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In Search of the Venice Carnival-2

Neeman A Sobhan

The next 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.

The 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 ?

Our husbands 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...."

We decide 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!

Coming out 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.

Imitating 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!

Saturday 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.

Different 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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