Masquerade magic at the Venice Carnival

It was my fascination with Masquerade that cast a spell over me. Enchanted by the idea of experiencing a masked ball for myself, the very thought nailed itself to the very top of my bucket list. And where better to see first hand such a spectacle, than at the Venice Carnival in February. 

Booking early was essential. We travelled with our many bags filled with masks, jewels and ball dresses, failing to remember that Ryanair had recently introduced the extra baggage charges.

Stepping out from the main Venice train station, there was no escaping the heaving mass of tourists who seemed to clog all the exit routes. We were just two of thousands who descend on Venice every year, to take part in the oldest masked ball in the world, the Venice Carnival

We dragged our heavy cases, negotiating the steps of some of the 450 bridges, of which we crossed about ten to get to our hotel. However the views as we arrived did not disappoint. Immediately sucked in by the electric festival atmosphere, it was hard not to feel some what seduced by the romance of the city and wander through the splendid warm romantic colours of what seemed to be, a Renaissance oil painting.

After debating at length with the hotel staff, the difference between a ‘twin’ and a ‘double’ room, the best way to let off steam is of course to explore the city. These streets are made for walking, so forget your map and let your senses guide you. There are no cars in Venice, just human traffic. The myriad of alleyways are a window shoppers dream cluttered with jewellers, art galleries, cosmetics, fashion, tapas bars, patisseries, Morano glass chandeliers, mask making schools and costume hire shops. It is easy to fall into a dreamy state of conscious, following the crowds, forgetting all sense of time or direction. 

Venice, is the medieval capital of Europe and the world’s grandest stage. It is like sitting in an outdoor theatre or walking the corridors of an old museum. So remember to pause every so often to relax and admire the glamour, while sipping a Bellini, savouring a cappuccino or indulging in some of the homemade ice creams or irresistible pizzas and pastries. Venice is on an island marooned in a lagoon comprising of 120 islands. A boat ride here is essential to appreciate the enormity of its beautiful architecture. Take the Vaporetta No.1 water taxi along The Grand Canal, the most glamorous high street in the world, lined with exquisite medieval palaces, Byzantine cathedrals and galleries housing some of the greatest art collections in the world. Its views still unchanged since the paintings of the 18th century.

Winter here casts dreamy light on the city, with dusty pinks and pastel blues and greens, enhancing the rich terracotta rooftops. Gondolas navigate their way along narrow canals of which there are 177 to be exact. The dilapidated buildings stand as if wilting precariously over a labyrinth of winding streets and canals. The streets, tattered and worn, create charm and nostalgia and add sprinklings of timeless magic of this ancient city.

Restaurants are abundant and nightlife is based around some of the small plazas. Rialto Bridge houses late bars and free open-air concerts around carnival time. Take it from me, steer clear of the infamous drink ‘Spritz’ and remember to be back before the clock strikes twelve and your chariot turns into a pumpkin. The dark streets can be confusing to those under the influence, becoming a maze of corridors. Heavy mist drifts in off the water at night, shrouding and smothering the city with mystery and ambiguity. It can be nightmare to those of lesser wit, trying to skipper their way back to the hotel late at night when the only friendly face to ask directions are the doves and pigeons. Every corner you turn you catch a glimpse of phantom like cloaked figure as they disappear into the shadows

The Mask is regulation uniform for Carnevale offering guise, intrigue and mystery to the event. Their intricate ornate designs in many shapes and sizes, allows ordinary to become extraordinary, faces to become faceless and allows exhibitionists in the most extravagant costumes to parade in complete anonymity. The 17th century St Mark’s palazzo, is the main meeting square and gathering for all the lavishly dressed incognitos who come to masquerade, posing for the gawkers and photographers but it us also where the main heart of the festival beats, with live concerts, pageants, animated performers, mime artists and jugglers.

Carnival is inspired by the Commedia dell’arte, a form of improvised plays and comedy that flourished in 16th and 17th century in Venice. These performances later lead to inspire the works of Shakespeare, Renaissance Europe and were a driving force in shaping the romantic drama of today. The plays gave rise to characters such as Jesters, Harlequins, Pierrots, Villains, Hunchbacks and Sultans involving tales of love and deceit. To this day the characters, masks and costumes that we can see in Venice are still hand crafted following old tradition but with additional modern twists.

It is unfortunate that I have to admit my dream did not come true at this Carnival. Our ball dresses that we lugged over never saw the light of day and stayed cooped up in their dull suitcases. Having arrived with great intent and excitement, we unfortunately became too intimidated by the ever eager and evident paparazzi. Reluctant to spend the entire holiday chained to photographers, we denied anyone the opportunity of seeing us in our finery and confined our cameo appearances to our hotel, for a few comical staged photo shoots. 

Carnival lives and breathes tourism and you can’t help but think that the charade and the parade is all for our benefit, all part of a show, performers acting out parts in a huge outdoor theatre. As you walk around after a treacherous day battling the crowds, at night the city sleeps, silent and gloomy in the knowledge that tomorrow it will recycle itself, as if in a time warp. 

Just before I left I happened upon a quite part of town, which had this wonderful vintage antiqued carousel spinning in the middle of the cobbled plaza. I was mesmerised by the wonderfully intricately carved and painted horses elegantly whirring past and the detailed glass and mirror insets that glinted in the sunlight. The carousel horses inspired this “hero” design in my collection which I called Carousel in elegant teal, pink and turquoise against a silvery grey backdrop. Playful fun and theatrical, it is a wonderfully unique repeat design that embodies some of the elaborate colours and themes experienced at the Carnival.

Debbie Millington