It’s only noon and already I have bumped into a female unicorn, Romeo, and a cluster of dancing Magic Trees. I’m in Venice and this is Carnival, a time of transformation in which everyone is invited to don a mask and become as fantastical a creation as the baroque palaces, statues, and carvings of the city around them.
In 1789, Arthur Young was struck by the Venetian love of performance: There were seven theaters and all were said to be full during Carnival season. Over two centuries later, for the two weeks before Lent, Venice still becomes a theater without walls, where players and spectators choose their own parts. If you have ever longed to be a star, posing for the flashbulbs of hundreds of photographers, but also to maintain the mystique of complete anonymity, then this is your perfect stage.
Venice in winter has a fierce beauty. The water in the canals is dark teal green: the color of Roman glass or Byzantine marble. The wind off the lagoon is brutal. Emerging onto the wharfs, your face is battered, your body bent to shield yourself from the blast. But the drama of the architecture is exaggerated by the coldness of the light. The Moorish arches and pillars of checkerboard palaces, the white marble-stepped bridges, the flights of angels from the porticos of immense churches all acquire the intensity of visions glimpsed at dusk. The topography of the city—where high-walled streets, often just broad enough for two people to pass, sometimes peter out at the water’s edge, sometimes lead into magnificent squares—makes the experience of walking in Venice one of perpetual doubt and revelation. It is as if the city is a metaphor for the mind: One is constantly aware of what is hidden, as well as what is available to view; one pursues an idea along a dark alley to arrive either at bafflement or wonder.
During Carnival, the strangeness of encounter so intrinsic to Venice is multiplied a thousandfold. You duck beneath an archway and meet the eye of a dragon. A lord and his lady, in lace ruffs, cloaks, and robes stride imperiously out of a pizzeria. I sheltered in a pastry shop to wrap my frozen fingers around a rich hot chocolate. A lady entered behind me in a pink and green crinoline, with a full-face white mask and a pink scarf wrapped around hair and neck. Mask off, the figure lifting a cappuccino was a smiling young man with sideburns. One day I took the ferry to San Michele, the cemetery island of cypresses, where I visited Ezra Pound’s plain grave. As I admired the rows of tombs, a strange party solemnly processed along the gravel walk: a dandy, with topboots, wig, and a beaver hat; then a cluster of women in 1780s costume; and finally a man with a silver-topped cane and a vast purple-lined cloak, beneath whose elaborate veil I could see a flour-white face with a beauty spot. They laid red roses on the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, forming a funeral tableau that might have belonged to an enigmatic dream.
Carnival in 18th-century Venice was an extended period of license where masters and servants, nuns and nymphomaniacs, could exchange roles. The festival also had a strong ritual element of civic renewal: Bulls were sacrificed and the Piazza San Marco, Venice’s focal point, became an amphitheater, lit by artificial fire. Acrobats formed human pyramids, there were Moorish dances, and tests of strength and agility including the “flight of the Turk,” a descent along a wire from the top of the bell tower of St. Mark’s into a boat on the canal. Now, few free civic events remain. There is still a stage in Piazza San Marco, but it features a digital advertising screen. The flight of the Turk has become “the flight of the angel,” in which a pretty actress wafts harmlessly in harness from the campanile to the ground. In truth, Carnival was largely extinct in Venice by the 20th century but was revived in 1979 as a lure for tourists during the winter months.
“But at the beginning it wasn’t just about tourism,” Andrea da Marchi told me. He was an organizer of Carnival events in the 1980s. “At that time,” he said, “reviving Carnival was important because we had just had a terrible era of terrorism where people were afraid to gather in public in large groups.” In the 1980s, participation in Carnival was more local, with young Venetians busking in their neighborhood square.
Sadly, the modern Carnival is driven less by motives of fun than funding. Visitors can buy expensive tickets for organized parties in palazzi, concerts, and pub crawls. But, as da Marchi commented: “Have you ever been to a great party where you had to pay an entrance fee?” For the most part, then, carnivalgoers simply throng the streets admiring each other, eating, drinking, and window-shopping.