A few days ago, looking at an image posted by Bacart (a Venetian art gallery) on their Facebook Page made me recall the style, sights, color combinations and sounds of Carnival taking place in Venice during a different time. The look and feel of Carnival in the late 1980s, intimate and private and much lesser known. You could actually leave your home in the morning for school or work and find that nothing had really changed even though Venice was hosting Carnival.
The city belonged to us and we were full of anticipation because Carnival “events” weren’t rehearsed and planned in the smallest details but did have a surprise effect. Venetians had come to enjoy their Carnival after being sceptical onlookers during the first season in 1978. Yes, they truly enjoyed it in the first ten years or so and many did join in, identifying with and shaping their own Carnival experience.
Much has changed since then. Not only did Venice count more than 30 million visitors in 2015, corresponding to half the population of Italy. Statistics for the last three years have also shown that about 170,000 people visit Venice on average each Carnival weekend. Last Sunday, 115,000 people have been reported visiting the Volo dell’Angelo event, which is about twice the current population in Venice. There are much less people in town during Carnival weekdays, though.
These figures convey a stark difference between the Carnival “edition” of 2017 and past ones. Like the very first organized in 1978 by art directors, 180 years after Carnival had been abolished because of the fall of the Republic in 1797.
In my following story you will discover why Venetians identified so much with “their own Carnival” in the past. In 1989, Carnival consisted of masked events and parties for children taking place across town. These were small and intimate gatherings on the campi, people drinking hot chocolate and walking around wearing masks on a Saturday afternoon, enjoying zaleti biscuits at Rosa Salva’s. None of the foreign visitor knew about fritole, my grandmother says, and the most opulent private event taking place during Carnival, Il Ballo del Doge, wasn’t to be initiated until 1994.
It was foggy, mild and rather wet. In the morning we went to the Rialto market to buy groceries for the weekend, and it wasn’t until around 11:30 am when I ate my tramezzino under the market arcades that we finally encountered the first masked people.
Sometimes they smiled and passed and said nothing. In other cases, they pointed to my camera and asked us to take their pictures (which I did – you can see them in the picture above). We stopped to look at a bookstore’s windows in Campo San Luca (closed now) and my mother went in to buy the book Le Maschere Veneziane for me, to learn and share with my grandparents. That day we also bought my very first cookbook: Venezia in Cucina and another children’s book with lots of cute illustrations aimed at exploring Venice.
Later on, I met with older friends and we went for a long walk to the Scala del Bovolo, always looking for le maschere (masks), and all the way to Campo San Zanipolo to warm up with hot chocolate at Rosa Salva’s. In the evening, we simply danced with other children surrounded by tourists on Piazza San Marco to great music broadcast from a radio station (must have been Radio Vanessa, the Venetian Radio Station). It was Saturday, one of the peak days of Carnival. Yet there were just Venetians and visitors dancing together in the mysteriously floodlit Piazza until past midnight.
By now, Carnival in Venice looks and feels different. First, it has become predictable (here’s the program) and we (the Venetians) can now plan exactly where to go and when to avoid the crowds during a certain time of day. I don’t say that Carnival as it is presented now doesn’t have good points, on the contrary. What I like now is how culinary treats, street cuisine and the heritage of Venetian crafts is beautifully presented to the world.
Also, the opulent Carnival during the Republic of Venice did look a bit as it does now, with crowds flocking to Piazza San Marco to witness events such as the Volo dell’Angelo (The Angel’s Flight) and visit the fair stalls arranged there – just like you can watch them via this webcam.
Why yes, Carnival now has two faces. This time of the year, with many visitors flooding town, has also become an important stage for the Venetians. Last weekend, many took the advantage and proclaimed their needs as residents in an overcrowded city. This is the background to Pandamonio – told in this article by Gruppo 25 Aprile.3