Venice Carnival


This was the year when the Venice Carnival ceased to be something to participate in and became something merely to photograph.
The other shock of the ten-day carnival, amongst the shocking idiocy of the tourists and the stunning shock of the costumes, was that no-one was looking at Venice anymore.
The quality, contrasts, and sheer number of the costumes drove the tourists’ desire to take photographs into something of a furious obsession, so that taking a photograph became a substitute for thinking about it; video cameras replaced looking closely at the costumes and carnival. The divide between participants and observers has never been wider. The Commune’s decision to clutter St Marks – as if any square in the world needed decorating less than St Marks ! – and even block the view of the palaces with a rather clumsy float- display combined with the poorly-organised lacklustre entertainment, ensured that the costume became everything. Star costumes were hunted in packs, capturing a photo became the entire raison d’etre of the event.
The result was that swarms of people buzzed around St.Marks with the pervading feeling that they knew they were meant to be glad to be there but really weren’t, that it was meant to be very exciting and full of debauched revelry but it wasn’t really was it?
Costume fatigue soon took over. This was a shame because the masses of fantastically diverse and detailed costumes – from the exquisite to the grotesque to the tacky and hilarious – was remarkable. The most delightful discovery was the humour, with the whole thing becoming a mix of Mrs Shilling’s Ascot Hat fashion, Sigue Sigue Sputnik futurism, an Alice in Wonderland Masked Ball and a Drag Queen’s Fancy Dress Party. Highly hallucinogenic.
Amongst those that stand in the memory, for their individuality and air of home-made fun were a huge Pacman (complete with recorded sound effect), a Maradona, a Pope with a porn mag, a giant beetroot, a tower-block, a man with his head through the ‘Mona-Lisa’, a Sony Walkman (6ft square), a giant match, clowns, sultans, jesters, little gangs of Ladybirds and Mickey Mouse travelling in packs, dressed in shorts, boots and boxing-gloves.
These mingled merrily with the harlequins, beautiful, painted ghosts, elegiac crystal- spiked ice- queens, fallen death- gaze angels, all skins and alien grace like David Bowie in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, peacock kings, Neptunes, devils and mythical gods.
The classic Brighellas, Balanzones and Punchinello beaks merged with a sea of death- masks, jewels and feathers, claws and cloaks, black veils, lace, powdered wigs draped in orange or lurid green crepe trains – a total range from the sinister to the silly, the dramatic to the historical.
From time to time one’s admiration drooped, the mystery collapsed as a pair of dirty Timberland boots peeked from under the extravagant costumes or one saw one’s favourite, elegant creature light up a fag or run for a water-bus.
Sadly too, the tourists’ eagerness to photograph everything (except Venice itself, now a mere backdrop) merely pandered to many of the protagonists’ vanity.
Reviving a rather distasteful tradition, the rich had the most stunning costumes and the most vanity and as large groups of tourists playing at being paparazzi gathered, they would parade before them their wealth and influence as the bourgeoisie did centuries ago. At times you could smell the vanity.
Then there were the American tourists, wondering where they could catch a bus that didn’t go by water, exclaiming ‘Aren’t these pigeons cute ?!’ and informing me that they had learnt English from Benny Hill. Some of them seemed barely aware that they were in Venice at all.
Still, as night fell, the revelry, and the crowds grew and the locals celebrated as if this were Venice’s final carnival before the tide took it altogether. The security of masked promiscuity, the thin sunshine, the light Waltz music, all made for a warm, excited atmosphere, a colourful daze.
By the climatic Sunday, the costume fatigue and the sheer size of the crowds became too much. That afternoon the bridges were closed, such was the crush and the police placed the station out of bounds. Organisers had found no answer as to how to entertain or control the crowds.
We escaped the Carnival’s dizzy joy to the place where Venice meets the sea, where the silence is beautiful and breath- taking and the dusty bars are full of fishermen, old men with no teeth and women with moustaches. Venice should always be the star of the Carnival.
We took the train home with 9 cavemen, a giant pepper, four pandas, a clock, two Draculas, 27 ladybirds, a bearded nun, a giant match, 12 Mexican bandits and a chain-gang, joined by real metal ball-and-chain.