A sinking city of color, sea and secrets, Venice is known for its inescapable romance, beauty and mystery – the climax of which is surely the three-week, annual celebration of Carnival.
It is said that the first Carnival of Venice started in 1162 after a victory for La Repubblica della Serenissima, Venice’s original name literally translated as: ‘The Very Serene Republic.” Over Carnival’s history its popularity ebbed and flowed depending on the current ruler of the city and the fashion of the times, but the festival was fully revived in the late 20th century, around 1979 and today is considered one of the most popular Carnival celebrations in the world.
At the start of the 12th century Venetians poured into Piazza San Marco to meet friends, drink and fully celebrate their liberation. It was a time when the strict social and economic classes among the people was broken down and everyone was united as a victorious citizen.
Somehow, that original festival grew into one of pleasure in general, a way to indulge before the start of Lent. Though the origin isn’t completely clear, people began wearing masks, perhaps to keep that feeling of freedom. With no true identity, there could be no distinction between the different social classes.
Imagine one time per year when the Disney-esque stories may have actually existed. Behind the cover of masks the poor gondoliere was able to be with la principessa and forbidden love, acts and magic was possible, if only for a short time, for only the city to remember.
Thousands still come to Venice each year to don masks and costumes, put on new characters and identities and parade through the narrow streets and the grand Piazza di San Marco – a personal and public theater.
We took a day-trip and explored the throng of known and unknown characters, taking time to escape the crowds and see the less-masked Venice, one not hidden behind monuments, tourists and luxury. In the back alleys toward the tip of the island we were offered fried pastries and wine by happy, fat Venetians. They were raising money for the local school, and doing so by cooking homemade dishes to give away for a small donation. When one pastry was consumed, another was magically placed in our hands as they spoke, incomprehensibly to us, in Veneto, the local dialect.
After drinking wine offered merrily in a Venetian garden we decided to take a ferry in an attempt to not lose toes to frostbite and as a way to tour the city by night. As the sun went down the city transformed from crowds of regal masked beings to revelrous, swaying friends, screaming to each other across their table of seafood and alcohol as fog filled the city with humid, wintery sea air.
The brightness and joyfulness of the masks are balanced by the occasional darker mask, representing fear or death, serving as a reminder to all that nothing lasts forever.
We left before the night was fully underway and before the snow started to fall