Music, masks and witches from Macbeth… SMITHA RAO on the unique Venice Carnival that throbs with life

There's nothing about Venice that hasn't been said before, including this sentence, as writer Geoff Dyer put it. And, when a city has been inundated with laurels and descriptions galore, it seems like there's little else to discover.

The much-feted Venice however knows her stuff; it's a city that has always considered itself as apart from Italy. So, in February Venice, a city that is alive through the year, puts up the most colourful and longest carnival on earth.

The Venice Carnival — Carnevale de Venezia — is when a sea of humanity congregates by the canals in Eastman colour, united in purpose like their own Benetton.

Starting mid-February, Venice is transformed into an ostentatious bride. There are no real people anymore; only masks, costumes, allegorical characters and gallons of grease-paint! Tiny streets, large squares and the innumerable bridges have the Venetians, other Italians and a few lakh tourists don masks and costumes, ranging from the grotesque and fierce to beautiful and ornate.

The fortnight-long government sponsored street party finally ends with a bang on Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday.

Intelligent architecture

For a city built entirely on water, not a shred of space is available, right from where the traveller alights at the Stazione de Santa Lucia, the train station.

The Italians know a thing or two about intelligent architecture — the station exit opens directly into the Grand Canal, described as early as the 15{+t}{+h} Century by French writer Phillipe de Commines as “the finest street in the world with the finest houses.” But, why don't they do something about the ritzy hoardings screaming out Versace perfumes, Emporio Armani underwear (the Beckhams!) and D&G sunglasses.

The mandatory gondolas, vaporettos apart, the prescribed way of discovering Venice, even during the carnival, is to walk. The main circuit in the city starts at the arcaded Piazza San Marco, best recognised by the basilica, Procuratie Vecchie (residences of the former procurators of St. Mark) and Nuove. The French did have a fetish for all things Venetian; Napolean, who described Piazza San Marco as the “finest drawing-room of the world” converted Nuove to his official residence.

Guiding tourists and laying out street-by-street details is the preserve of Lonely Planets and Wikis; what they don't and cannot tell you is the minutes of the Carnival.

Bring on the masks

A thousand-odd witches from Macbeth here, Dukes, Duchesses, Counts and Countesses straight out of Victorian England there, bodices, plumes, umbrella gowns, parasols and all, Roman gladiators, clowns, devils in disguise… everyone from almost everywhere wears at least a mask… save for the Nikon-masked Japanese or “observers” from parts of Asia.

Manoeuvring through the milling crowds is no mean feat — the municipality put the tourist influx in 2007-08 at around 7,00,000 for the entire carnival season, a baffling number considering that the population of Venice is not more than some 55,000!

Masks and the Venetian carnival has been such a traditional feature that long-time Venetians explain, almost with pride, how their predecessors were so rakish that there had to be a law to prevent men from wearing women's costumes and entering convents!

Today, there are almost no rules except banning religious costumes; no, of course they don't check bacchanalian excesses, what's Venice without Bellinis at Harry's Bar (where it was invented!) or Italy even, without wine!

The tourist office informs that Venice has some 100 canals and 400 bridges. Meticulously made-up masked people pose like mannequins at every nook for awed spectators and flashbulbs alike.

After navigating through the tiny waterways and calle (streets), when you do arrive at the vibgyor-awash San Marco square, be a discerning traveller and take in the sights of the Tesoro (containing the treasures of Constantinople), Palazzo Ducale (formerly housing the government and prisons), the arty Chiesa di Santa Maria Glorosia dei Frari and the city's second largest square, San Polo.

On most days, the famous Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) is reduced to a 10-second glimpse, much like our temple darshans. Evenings are a boisterous affair of night-costumes, ball dances and happy hours.