My friend and colleague Edoardo Luppari, with whom I worked this past Carnival season in Venice, has a lot of interesting things to say about his home city. He sees a sort of yin/yang duality that allows Venice to be at once a very public, spectacular world city; and at the same time to be a private place full of mystery and secrets. He equates this to the Apollonian/Dionysian “masks” that we wear in different states of being and interaction. On the Apollonian, daylight, “public” front, Venice displays the elegant façades of the Palazzos lining the Grand Canal, the grandeur of Piazza San Marco, the impressive beauty of its waterfront promenades. This is the mask which says, “We are mighty, we are beautiful. Come bask in the glory of the Republic of Venice.” It is the face of politics and commerce, and nowadays, of the everyday tourism of Venice. Then there is the Dionysian face, the face of the night, the face of dark alleyways and labyrinthine passages, of private rooms and private activities. This is the the mask which says, “Do not follow here for fear of getting lost. These corridors are only for the initiated.” This “nighttime” face is the face of mysteries and masquerades, of bacchanals and secret trysts, of gambling and general licentious behavior.
In truth, these two faces of Venice are more mythological and historical than they are real. The reality of a city that exploits its storied past with an ever-increasing homogeneity of mask shops and vendors of tourist art cannot escape anyone who visits Venice with even the slightest of critical eyes. Along with countless other victims of modern tourism, Venice has become a tawdry vendor of its own mystique, selling souvenirs of a place that truly exists only in the collective imagination of those who dream her.
But Venice has always been a place that exists in the imagination as much as, if not more than, in reality. People come to Venice to pretend, to play make-believe; to don the mask and imagine they are living in some other time; some grander, more beautiful time; some more mysterious, licentious time, when there really was the possibility of outrageous goings-on…as if by the wearing of capes, gowns, and masks, they might be able to take one step closer to the magic and mystery of Venice, might step into the dream and live it, might actually feel the hearbeat of Carnival that exists within all of us, but which we in modern times seem unable to find, hard as we try.
Well, enough theorizing on Venice and Carnival. It is a complex and endlessly fascinating subject. All of this, however, is by way of explaining the following photos, which are representations of the “daylight” mask, the mask of Apollo. They are from the opening ceremonies of Carnevale in Venice, the “Flight of the Angel” and the “Parade of the three Marias”. A short bit of history, as I understand it:
The Flight of the Angel was originally called the “Flight of the Turk” and involved flying a man (the symbolic “Turk”) on a zipline from the top of the Campanile in Piazza San Marco to the ground in the Piazzetta. Once he hit the ground, there was a ritual slaughtering of a pig, which involved certain taboos, such as the slaughtering blade cannot touch the ground, et cetera. As far as I can surmise this was a kind of “scapegoating” ceremony, as the Turk in historical Venetian symbology is always the bringer of unsavory influences from somewhere outside of the Republic–gambling, homosexuality, prostitution, the wearing of masks–all were blamed on the Turks in historical times. Thus, this ceremony was a celebration of the triumph of order and nationalism over unsavory and unseemly proclivities which threatened the moral framework of the Venetian Republic. By ascribing a foreign origin to these sins and ritually slaughtering them in the pre-Lenten festivities, the collective psyche of the Venetian community could be purged and absolved, yearly, ritually.
Eventually the Flight of the Turk was replaced by the Flight of the Angel, and in modern times the “Angel” has traditionally been a famous Italian starlet who flies the zipline. This year, in a controversial but historically ironic move, the organizers of Carnevale invited the American rapper Coolio to be the Angel. The irony was lost on almost everyone; I’m not even sure that the organizers themselves were aware that they were re-instating the Flight of the Turk…America of course being the Turk, the bringer of licentious and unsavory behavior. Now if they would only re-instate the slaughtering of the pig, they would have a ceremony with real historical significance as well as an archetypal symbolism worthy of the spirit of Carnival. But I doubt that will happen; as soon as someone figures out the racial overtones of this year’s Flight in terms of its historical context, no doubt the organizers will go back to the tamer, and less interesting, practice of having young famous Italian beauties fly the line.
The second ceremony, the parade of the Three Marias, evolved from a supposedly actual event that occurred many years ago in Venice. Traditionally in Venice, women were married off in group wedding ceremonies, where many couples would be wed all at the same time, at a certain time of year. One year however, the wedding procession carrying all of the brides-to-be and their dowries was intercepted and robbed by a band of brigands. Eventually the thieves were caught and brought to justice, and the parade has been held ever since in honor of the young brides and the valiant men who saved them. So it is in essence a celebration of the triumph of order, justice, marriage, etc, over the influences of greed, thievery, etc.
Hopefully you get the gist of where these ramblings are going: that these opening celebrations are part of the “Apollonian” face of the Carnival celebrations, displays of the outward order and glory of the Republic of Venice, before the city dives into its celebration of the Dionysian side of human existence, into the world of dancing and drinking and cavorting and masquerading, and god-knows-what, that the gates of Carnival open into for 10 days in late winter.
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