NB: The following post is an interlude, not a continuation of the cliff-hanging drama of the last post. More on that story to come…
On Thursday night, thanks to the gracious invitation of friends from Hotel Danieli and MeetingEurope.com, I attended the Ballo Tiepolo, at the Palazzo Pisani-Moretta on the Grand Canal. The Palazzo was built in the 15th century, and was expanded and restored in the 18th century. The interior features many baroque details and frescoes, much of which feature the work of Giambattista Tiepolo, one of the greatest Venetian artists of the era, for whom the ball is named.
Il Tiepolo is unique in that not only is attention paid to details of period dress and furnishings, but the dances of the 18th Century are also led by a charismatic dancing-master named Roberto Barison, who stands a good six inches over most of the other guests as he leads them through the minuet, the contradanse, and other forms of the era. Below he is pictured leading dancers at an earlier event in the week.
The guests hail from all over the world, much like the revelers at the Carnival of yore, when celebrants would flock from as far-off as England, and performers and musicians from Turkey and Romany would entertain guests with shenanigans, music, acrobatics, and card tricks. Nowadays the distances have expanded, from Russia and the Far East to the United States…but on this night, only the odd accents, the labels on the wine bottles, and the lights illuminating the frescoes—and of course, the ubiquitous cell-phone cameras–would give away the illusion of another time.
I was pleasantly surprised by the images I captured that evening. They have a different look from most of the rest of my Carnival work. The light is softer, the colors more muted. But there is a classical beauty here that I think truly evokes the nostalgia for a lost era that predominates the spirit of the Venetian Carnival.
My working title for the book on the Venetian Carnival is “Songs of Glories Long Since Past”, which comes from a line out of a song called “Saint Lucilia” by Percy Hill. To me it evokes a yearning for times gone by that goes beyond nostalgia. There is something about a collective memory, barely understood but strongly felt, which drives people to go to such elaborate lengths to step into a fantasy of that memory, as if to somehow walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before us and left their imprints on the consciousness of human history. Attending a ball like Il Tiepolo is like stepping into a painting, living and breathing through the oil and gesso and hearing the music frozen in the cracks of paint. The painting comes alive, begins to move; the scent of perfume, the sweetness of the stringed instruments, the swoosh of petticoats and the intrigue of stolen glances and raised eyebrows.
Yes, it’s a fantasy. But isn’t it all a fantasy? Wasn’t it a fantasy back then? Isn’t every moment we live imbued with imagination and yearning for pleasure, beauty, fulfillment, love? A hope that somehow we can make the unreal, the unrealized, real and tangible?
The spirit of Carnival takes many forms, in many lands, across many cultures. It is a spirit as old as human consciousness, and it is all around us, all the time. It does not always mean the same thing to all people, but it lives within all of us, in some shape or form. Whether it be in the unstoppable samba beat on the streets of Brazil, all bare flesh and sweat and the kiss of a stranger’s lips; or in the second-line shenanigans going on right now down in New Orleans, plastic beads thrown from passing floats to invite the revelers to the dance…or perhaps it’s just a feeling on a particular night in some local watering hole in Middle America, when the band is hitting all the right notes and there is a feeling that something special is happening, and that anything is possible. Maybe it’s just a good day when the sun is shining and the water at the swimming hole is cool and refreshing. Or the adrenaline rush of a fast car, the sweaty skin-on-skin ecstasy of young lovers, the being-in-the-zone feeling of a well-executed performance. We all know that these times are ephemeral, that sooner or later the Carnival will pack up and move on…that this Carnival ride we call life itself only lasts for so long…and after we say, Carne Vale, farewell dear flesh…but while we are here, while this moment lasts, let us eat, drink, love, dance, and be merry. For tomorrow, well, tomorrow never knows…One thing is for sure, there’s only so much of it you can handle before your body aches for Morpheus.
Many thanks to Francesca Ariella Rota for her help and hospitality and to Manuel Silvestri for providing me with contacts.