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Getting into the spirit of the magicCarnevale in Venice
I shift my weight a bit, as my rump begins to absorb the deep coolness of the marble slab that we're perched upon. Chilly hindquarters seems a small sacrifice for keeping our choice vantage point, just above the shoulders of the lively crowd of masked Carnevale revelers.

Basilica and Bell Tower of Piazza San MarcoAdorned in our own masks, we're sitting upon the massive marble handrail of the Campanile di San Marco bell tower, at the top end of the Piazzo San Marco. This is the center of all that has, and all that still does, happen in Venice.

Two dozen yards in front of us - the magnificently ornate facades of Basilica di San Marco (nicknamed Chiesa d' Oro or Golden Church) slightly to our left, and Palazzo Ducale (palace of royals) just to its right.

Carnevale reveler in full garbAcross the way and above us - antique statues lining the edges of the basilica's balconies, seem to shake their heads in amazement as they watch all of the insanity below.

At our dangling feet - a swirling river of bodies, losing themselves in the fantasy and excitement of this, the world's oldest and most elegant of Carnival celebrations.

Carnevale revelers in full garbAnd just beside us - two brightly dressed clowns quickly pull themselves up to teeter upon the railing, and begin posing for the crowd. With little warning, we find ourselves surrounded by photographers (professionals and amateurs alike) snapping their cameras and sending hundreds of bright-white flashes popping in our faces.

Carnevale reveler in full garbEven though we're not the immediate subject of all the attention - all of the flashes, all the clicking and whirring of the cameras - make us feel a little like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman striking a pose 'for our public' at the Chinese Theatre. And why not? Imagining you're someone else, anyone else - at another place, at another time - that's the essence of Carnevale in Venice.

Reveler in classic costume"You can pick the fairytale" explains Patricia, an attorney from Rome who's here for her sixth year of Carnevale weekend escapes. "The mask gives you freedom. You feel like you can be and do whatever you want." Her choice is that of an 18th century aristocrat, complete with elegant black silk hoop dress and simple moretta (classic black oval mask). "This was my grandmother's dress, it is beautiful isn't it? It is my base. I have many, many hats and capes that I change several times each day."

Fantasy godAs she so wonderfully demonstrates, we humans often discover our inhibitions through anonymity, and without a doubt, anonymity is the liberating condition of Carnevale. For anyone could be behind that mask - Italian or Chinese, beautiful or homely, young or old. It's no matter, as they live their fantasies and we live ours.

The clowns climb down and, as quickly as they gathered, our circle of snapshot hunters scatters, continuing their photo safaris in pursuit of other prey.

Imposing in peach and grayThey needn't look far, for all around are more masked 'actors' posing vainly for admiring photographers. They utter not a single word, but offer only graceful motions to communicate. While normally they may be the shy ones at parties, dressed in full costume at Carnevale, they adore in the attention.

And in fact, most of them have gone to great lengths, either through their own handiwork or that of local costume artisans, to attract our looks and stares. So much so that the design and crafting the coming year's costumes and masks often becomes nothing short of an obsession for their creators.

The hard work pays off with the oohs and aahsWe stopped in a number of the mask and costume shops to watch the talented and imaginative artisans creatively ply their trade. Their hands were swift and skilled, their pace hectic, and their concentration high in the last few days leading up to Carnevale. One of the shopkeepers, so obsessed with her work, confessed to us that all the masks had come to life and chased her into the darkness in a dream just the night before.

Constantly dancing with reflectionBut the hours and hours of careful stitching and sewing, with the yards and yards of luxurious silks and velvets, and miles of expensive weavings and threads, are for most, a labor of love. And the fruits of this labor is a host of stunningly beautiful costumes, as ornate and rich as their surroundings. Many of the outfits are so elaborate, and drip with so many bits of gold, silver, sequins, and jewels, that they constantly dance with reflection. And when even further animated with real people inside them, the beautiful ensembles glitter and sparkle with their every their move. They glisten almost, in fact, as brightly the wearer's bright and shining eyes, shifting here then there with excitement, just behind their masks.

The Queen of HeartsBut, since you can't see their faces, their vanity appears somewhat contridictive. Or, maybe that's the point, for they prance around like peacocks. In fact, some are dressed as peacocks. Others are dressed as Arabian princes, Spanish knights, and Italian noblemen. Still more of them are decked out in outrageous 'fantasy' garb. The four seasons, the Queen of Hearts, King of the Seas, or King of the Snows, they're all here and fully playing every bit of their 'roles'.

Mrs. Water and Mr. Fire"It just gets into your skin" one Carnevale devotee tells us "You can just feel it - the tingle." She's right, once you've experienced it, the excitement at Carnevale is very addicting. At each festival there are countless new converts, who after experiencing that special feeling for the first time, return again and again, year after year to enjoy the magic.

You'll never go wrong with classic blackWhile the party goers are spread relatively thin around most of the city, a major concentration of celebrants is crammed almost shoulder to shoulder in Piazzo San Marco - dancing to the bands, laughing with the street theatre players, and being amazed by the sidewalk jugglers. Sitting in smack dab in the middle of the massive crowd, I get the uneasy feeling that the whole island may be tilting slightly towards us, and slightly towards the sea - ready to sink right into the ocean at any given time under the additional weight.

Maroon flight of fancyBut I seem to be the only one who's worried, for all around us people are happy and smiling, laughing and chatting, photographing and fantasizing. All with a level of energy that's as amazingly high after three or four days, as the first day we arrived. At times, it seems it can't be real. At times, it seems that a spectacle as elaborate and grand as Carnevale can exist only in the imagination, only in our fantasies. Or maybe, just maybe, the secret to Carnevale's magic is, that it is, in fact, a mix - a bubbling cauldron of fantasy, with a splash of reality thrown in for good measure.

Pretty in pinkThere are street lamps powered with real electricity, creating a surreal glow through storybook rose-colored glass. There are alleyways made with real cobblestone, always littered with a fairytale dusting of pastel-colored confetti. And of course, there are real people with real lives, playing out their costume-clad parts, play-written from the depths of their dreams, all on the world's grandest stage.

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Last modified: August 17, 1999    Photographs and text 1998 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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