I was recently lucky enough to go on a wonderful four-day trip to Venice; a beautiful city whose entire foundations are built on the mudbanks of a lagoon in Northern Italy.
My trip to Venice fell at the start of the 2013 Venetian Carnival, and so upon arrival I was expecting a flurry of noise and colour. However, I arrived at 11pm at night and the carnival hadn’t officially begun yet, so the first thing I was both greeted and struck by was the absolute resounding silence blanketing the entire city.
Both the air and water were still, shutters were closed everywhere, and there were no voices to be heard. Given that everybody in Venice travels either on foot or on boats, the loud hum of traffic that permeates most cities was notably absent too.
After weaving my way through the mute atmosphere and traversing over countless pretty little bridges, my place of residence came into view; a lovely three-storey house placed at the edge of one of the city’s many canals. The hostess, a friendly young woman named Camilla, was so welcoming, and her house, a traditional Venetian abode with lofty rooms and a cool, artdeco vibe, was the perfect place to stay.
As I woke the next morning and ventured outside I noticed that the atmosphere seemed livelier. Things got increasingly buzzy throughout my stay as the city’s inhabitants and visitors prepared for the carnival. The narrow streets, initially dotted with people, eventually became rammed with dedicated carnival goers, all of which were clad in elaborate costumes and intricate masks.
I couldn’t believe the masks on display in some of the shop windows, they were all so detailed and varied - and beautiful too. Apparently there are five different types of Venetian mask: Bauta, a mask which covers the whole face, Columbina, a half mask held up by a baton, Moretta, (or Servetta Muta, meaning mute maid servant) a strapless oval mask with wide eyeholes, Larva, a white mask, and the Medico Della Peste (The Plague Doctor), a beaked mask which is by far the most sinister looking.
According to Wikipedia (my favourite factual source), Venetian masks can be made of leather, porcelain or with the original glass technique. Original masks were simple and had practical function, but these days most are made with the application of gold leaf and all are hand-painted and decorated with feathers and gems.
Masks have always been a main feature of the carnival, which began in 1162. It’s said that traditionally people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano on December 26 and the start of the carnival season and midnight of Shrove Tuesday.
Masks were also allowed from October 5 to Christmas, meaning people could spend a large portion of the year in disguise. Which, in some respects, is what many women do nowadays anyway, except instead of masks women conceal and decorate their faces with makeup.
Speaking of makeup, there was a lot of face painting going on during the carnival. Children everywhere had their faces decorated with a variety of colourful designs, as did adult women and men alike; I spotted one grown woman who’d had her face painted as a cat!
All around the city there were little pop up stalls where face painters had set up their work stations, and it was there that they dipped their paint brushes into palettes and transformed their customers’ faces into carnival-worthy works of art. Typically the face paint designs appeared to dominate the upper left or right side of the face, or around the eyes.
As can be seen on the far left in the picture above, masks aren’t the only examples of beauty that you’ll find in Venice. I saw this traditional costume in the window of a shop near St Mark’s square. Its opulent and intricate design immediately grabbed me. I later saw similar dresses worn by festival goers, also pictured above, which almost looked as authentic as the dress in the shop window.
While Venice’s traditional window displays are captivating, equally striking is San Marco’s luxurious range of designer shops. The high-end fashion and jewellery on sale was impressive – as were the price tags. In one window I spotted a pair of stunning sunglasses (pictured below) whose winged frames looked straight out of the 1960s.
Louis Vuitton’s window display really caught my eye too; behind the pane of glass lay a typewriter that appeared to be spitting out numerous sheets of paper, all of which were carefully and elegantly suspended in mid-air.
Like most things in Venice, thanks to the inclusion of an archaic piece of technology. even this modern Louis Vuitton display felt steeped in antiquity, and the motionless sheets of paper aptly reflected how time in Venice somehow seems to stand still.
The city, whose main trade is tourism, has barely changed in appearance in centuries, and as a result has now become something of an open-air musuem. Sinking at a rate of 2mm per year, who knows how many more centuries Venice and its sleek black gondolas will be with us.
Which is why I really recommend you visit; it’s truly one of the most romantic places on the planet, and the historical selection of art, beauty and fashion to be found there is fascinating. The wine and cicchetti are delicious, too (if you ever go, make sure you visit Vini al Bottegon!)