Monday, February 8, 2016

A Craft-y Way of Increasing Venetian Presence in Carnevale

Giovanni Giusto, president of the Consorzio del Tajapiera Restauratori Veneziani, at work in Piazza San Marco

The large temporary structures built for Carnevale--the main part of which is the stage for various performances--change each year. Each version is elaborate, some may be more appealing than others, but this year's design seems to me to be the most successful of any of the five I've seen because of the significant effect it has had on one's experience of Carnevale.

Whether you like or dislike this year's design--and I just saw a disgusted Venetian on Facebook who thought the designer's construction of a wooden Rialto Bridge for the main stage to be a shameful diminution of the original and an unforgivable act of pandering to tourists--the big difference this year are the smaller pavilions extending out from the stage along both the Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove. Each of these pavilions house different artisans working away at their craft, all of which have been historically important in Venice.

The stage of this year's Carnevale, designed by La Fenice's set designer, Massimo Checchetto

There are, naturally, mask makers and glass makers, shoe makers, creators of fine textiles and of historical costumes. There are stone cutters and wood carvers, hat makers, experts in gilding and in ironworking, and, of course, makers of gondolas and forcole (oarlocks) and oars. There's a grand gondola, beautifully fitted out with elaborate carvings of scenes from the Battle of Lepanto, gilding, and luxury upholstery--showing each of these crafts at its finest, and how each separate one was (and is) involved in the creation of the iconic emblem of Venice (which is also the purpose of the association of Venetian artisans known as El Felze).

When I'd seen these pavilions being built before the start of Carnevale, I'll admit I'd feared the worst: that they'd serve as corporate promotional showcases or retail spaces (something along the lines of The Golden Arches "I'm Lovin' It Carnival Experience", or the Swatch "Time to Party Zone"). In at least one previous Carnevale the public space of the Piazza had been demarcated into certain areas requiring payment (for example, to enter private boxes in La Fenice-style tiered seating on either side of the stage). Such demarcations, needless to say, work against any sense of Carnevale as a communal event; a sense which is supposed to be at the festival's core, and which is already hard enough to come by in a city whose dwindling local population can be inclined at times to cede the Piazza to overwhelming crowds of tourists.

One of the indoradóri, or gold-leafers, engaged in her specialty; an excellent small guide (in English and Italian) to woodcarving and gilding in Venice was available gratis at the pavilion, produced by the artisan association El Felze 

I was relieved to hear that the small pavilions would, in fact, be used by local artisans. But then I wondered if there might be something a bit dispiriting about this: if this collection of little structures might seem rather like a zoo of vanishing species. As if the only place such rare creatures as actual Venetians and working artisans might still exist in Venice was in captivity, on display.

But it doesn't feel that way--at least not to me. It may be that the sheer amount of knowledge and artistry on display and in action could simply overwhelm even the least promising or hokey of contexts. These aren't actors in theme park dioramas, but working artists, the vitality of whose work can't be missed, even if the vast majority of Venetians themselves these days are more likely to motor around in fiberglass boats than row hand-made wooden ones.  

Moreover, the presence of these artisans in Piazza San Marco seems to ground this edition of Carnevale in the local more than any of the previous four years I've experienced. One of the most surprising and disappointing things to me about previous Carnevales was how absolutely dead the Piazza could seem for most of the days.

For as interesting and substantial as any given tourist may be as an individual, a vast piazza filled with nothing but tourists can seem dismayingly spectral. It's not really a tourist's fault. Unless we're on a guided tour, or following our own strict itinerary, we usually can't help but drift as tourists (or plod, when we reach the point of exhaustion)--nor, perhaps, should we want to help it. We slip out from beneath the weight of our normal life as tourists.

Francesco Briggi of Atelier Pietro Longhi at work on a sewing machine

But a Piazza of tourists far from home with nothing to do but, at best, photograph other tourists far from home in costume, can start to feel more like a convention, as I've said before (which, for all the beauty of the Piazza, might as well held on board a cruise ship), than a Venice Carnevale.

The presence of the artisans, aside from everything else it does, seems to anchor the proceedings in contemporary Venetian life (even if the artisans are practicing ancient crafts). And from what I've witnessed, it seems to draw more Venetians to the Piazza. Venetians who might in other years have thought of the Piazza during this period as a tourist-only space now have a reason to stop in and see friends who may be working in one of the pavilions.

The pavilions serve, you might say, as outposts of Venetian-ness in otherwise occupied territory, and this is important in this small walking-oriented town, where familiarity and shared history and face-to-face contact are all still important. If you happen to be in Venice for this Carnevale, see if you don't notice a small group of locals chatting on the apron of one of the pavilions: one of them is an artisan on break, perhaps they are smoking and/or enjoying a drink, perhaps they are taking some interest in what's happening on the main stage--and none of them would be in the Piazza if not for the artisans' pavilions.

A Carnevale without the participation of locals is not much of a Carnevale, just as a Venice without Venetians will be no kind of city. Whatever else may change in next year's edition of Carnevale I hope the artisan pavilions in Piazza San Marco will somehow be maintained--which seems easy enough to do. While the issue of how to keep Venetians in Venice is rather more complicated. Though perhaps not entirely unrelated.

The gondola Giulia, "Queen of Venice", on display in Piazza San Marco

Friday, February 5, 2016

The World of Carnevale, and Piazza San Marco, in a Soap Bubble

I'm not sure that the entertainers making soap bubbles this afternoon in Piazza San Marco with their long string loops thought of them as having any particular connection to Carnevale--after all, you can find people making bubbles that way year-round in Venice (and elsewhere), especially during the warm weather months. But bubbles in Western Art (as evident in paintings by artists like Jean Siméon Chardin (Soap Bubbles) and Rembrandt (Cupid Blowing Soap Bubble)) are all about the transience of human life, as Carnevale itself is.

Carnevale aims to present an iridescent pageant of pleasures, a shimmering world of surface effects and diversions: life stripped of its usual heaviness of being, its usual order turned upside down or reflected in surprising ways. It doesn't last for long, of course (though in the eighteenth-century Venice extended it as long as it could for the sake of business), and then, poof!, it's gone and Ash Wednesday and Lent is upon us.

I wouldn't have thought of any of this except for the curious fact, which I'd never noticed before today, that you can see the whole of Piazza San Marco in a soap bubble (as you can see in the images above and below; none of them processed in any way other than being lightened or darkened a bit). There it all was, the whole magnificent space: the campanile, the basilica, the temporary Carnevale pavilions, the huge video screen, even the people filling it (if you enlarge the image enough). A miniature, twinned, yin-and-yang image of the whole Piazza floating through the actual Piazza itself: a flock of such images, in fact. Or rather like a cluster of clone cells cast out into circulation, carrying the exact genetic material of the Piazza. If the wind carried one such cell to an uninhabited island in the lagoon might a new Piazza be spawned there?

But of course the bubbles never even last long enough to escape the confines of the Piazza itself. Carnevale, on the other hand, will be around for another five days and I'll have more pictures of it this weekend.        

Detail of the image above

A second soap bubble, the same Piazza

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Noble Laborer of Carnevale, This Morning

Just as nobility in the old Venetian Republic had their particular dress code, so certain workmen in present-day Venice have their own. The great achievement of the woman's costume above, which I happened upon this morning after dropping off my son at school, is to ingeniously combine the two.

Her imaginatively-detailed and well-tailored 18th-century patrician suit is made of the reflective orange material worn by today's operai, and features not only small reproductions of workmen's tools (the small plier, wrench and brick decorating her sleeve below), but incorporates some of the actual equipment itself into the costume: most prominently, the orange traffic cone, complete with warning light, that tops her tri-corner hat.

But even the gray "curls" of her would-be wig turn out to be, on closer examination, simply equal-length sections of plastic foam tubing (perhaps used as insulation on pipes) glued one below the other.

From a historical perspective, part of the costume's humor comes from the fact that actual patricians in the old Republic were forbidden to do most kinds of labor, as most kinds were considered inappropriate to their class. Impoverished nobles in the later Republic, for example, who'd squandered or gambled away their wealth and its sources, could work as dealers in one of the casinos, but many depended on financial assistance provided to poor members of their class by the state, doing their best to keep up the required appearances (the right clothes in the right colors and fabrics)* on limited funds: dressing and posing as nobility, in other words, on permanent holiday. Though probably with a good deal less enjoyment than those people who now come to Venice on holiday during Carnevale to dress up and pose as nobles.    

In any case, the men on either side of the costumed woman in the image above, wearing their own contemporary standard-issue orange work coats, just happened to be unloading a work boat near the Ponte della Paglia as she passed on her way to Piazza San Marco.

They were amused by her get-up, and readily posed beside her (while a photographer with the costumed noble suggested various poses). Then, still smiling, they went back to the real work of their ordinary day, while she went off to pose in the Piazza among the other costumed celebrants of Carnevale. 

*John Julius Norwich writes: "Already in the 17th century an ominous feature of the social life of the city was the growing class of impoverished nobles who, tending as they did to live in or near the parish of San Barnabà, were popularly known as the barnabotti. As official members of the Venetian aristocracy, they were required to dress in silk and continued to  be entitled to their seats in the Great Council; many, however, were too poor or too uneducated to occupy any but the lowest administrative positions, and since they were debarred by their rank from working as craftsmen or shopkeepers, increasing numbers drifted into corrupt practices... or lived on poor relief." (A History of Venice, Chapter 45). 

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Soldier in a Silent Invasion, This Evening

In my five years of living here, and five years of Carnevale,  I've rarely taken images of the many mysterious silent masked figures who migrate to Venice at this time of year. They're the favorite subjects of the scores of photographers who also roost here at this time of year, many of them professionals, so I saw no reason to simply repeat what so many other folks were doing. And generally I find the human face more interesting than a mask when it comes to taking pictures.

But I turned the corner this evening and there was this character, cleverly alight, and there were the columns and San Giorgio di Maggiore and it was almost as though I was actually looking at one of these figures for the first time. How odd it must be to spend all day being looked at by so many people but never actually seen, to be blatantly on display while being completely concealed. In a city that offers unlimited opportunities for people-watching, how particular must be the experience when it is done from behind one of these masks, within one of these costumes--an object of the public gaze who, paradoxically, is more seeing than seen.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Carried Away: Festa delle Marie

Half of the contingent of Marias carried down Via Garibaldi
The usual quiet of the riposo period along Via Garibaldi, when all its shops are typically shut up, was broken yesterday by the procession of the 12 Marias (or La Festa delle Marie), passing through from its starting point on the island of San Pietro di Castello and headed (via the Riva) for Piazza San Marco, where the newly-finished Carnevale stage and a large crowd awaited.

The celebration's origins are usually placed more than 1,000 years ago, in 943, and involve pirates, lovely brides, kidnapping, treasure, and a heroic pursuit by the wronged Venetians, led by their fearless doge. A succinct account of the feast's history can be found in English and Italian here: A more extensive illustrated account of both the past and present versions is available in Italian here: A more extensive historical overview in English is here:

I had the luxury and pleasure yesterday of working with another photographer, my eight-year-old son, Sandro, and give photo credit where needed. 

photo credit: Sandro Varni
photo credit: Sandro Varni

photo credit: Sandro Varni

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Double Vision in Piazza San Marco: The Build-Up to Carnevale

Watching the workmen in Piazza San Marco late yesterday afternoon hurrying to complete the large stage and its extensions before the activities of Carnevale begin in earnest this weekend I found myself feeling sorry for any designer charged with the task of devising a set of magical temporary structures in what has long been one of the most fantastic squares in Europe. Even the most whimsical vision realized in lumber has no hope of ever competing with just the basilica of San Marco alone, its eccentricities and excesses and exoticism. It's that strange instance in which something especially constructed for a holiday can't help but be rather dull compared to the same old structure you see everyday.