Sunday, 27 January 2013

Carnival season in Venice

The start of the Venice carnival. Almost a scene invented by Fellini: torches flaring on the water;  beaked masks; gondolas carrying winged animals; enormous wheeled water machines; fantastic animals; mystery and drifting smoke in the darkness. The origins of the Venetian carnival are very old, even if in its recreated form it’s modern. Carnival was a time of celebration, of freedom from the restraints of your own social identity, of licence. A man or woman could become something else. Like all winter festivals it served a psychological function – here a release for people in this most constrained and self-disciplined of cities.

There was something grotesque as well as gorgeous in the spectacle. With the freedom came sinister overtones too: opportunity for anonymous crime – the blade slipped between the ribs by a man in a back street masked as a plague doctor, dangerous liaisons, gambling debts. The carnival – which traditionally lasted from St Stephen’s day (26 December) until Shrove Tuesday – also made the authorities nervous.  The wearing of masks became fiercely controlled, circumscribed with prohibitions – the spectacle and its liberties tested the boundaries of social control. But sometimes, after extraordinary events, such as news of the victory of the great sea battle of Lepanto in October 1571, the masks would be given an extra licence, shops would shut, prisoners let out of jail, and Venice would become again a fantastic and brilliantly coloured dream, a creation of the imagination unlike anything in the visible world.


  1. Not long ago I finished Thomas Madden’s new book Venice: A New History. A straight forward narrative, easy to read, respect for the courageous Venetians (e.g.Enrico Dandolo!) and admiration for the genuine Venetian devotion to the Christian faith. The Venetians were concentrated in international commerce, sometimes crassly commercial, but reading your books and now Madden’s I marvel not only at their commercial skills but also the centuries of Venetian martyrdom for the Christian faith.

  2. Carnival is a wonderful cycle of emotional release. God knows, given the Venetian’s long, tempestuous history, such a release was a necessity. And it is the emotions felt by the Venetians in the Middle Ages that I felt through your books . The invasion of the Germanic tribes and the flight of terror into the Venetian lagoon, the passion for the totem of St. Mark, the steadfast determination of independence for their Church(i.e. keep your hands off our St. Mark’s Church, Pope), the details of the mind-boggling staunch resistance at Rhodes and Malta, the chronic anxiety at the seemingly irreversible tide of Islam, and the celebration/weeping in relief at news of Lepanto. The narratives of emotions is a special talent for a writer and much enjoyed.

  3. I haven't read Thomas Madden's book yet - thanks for the recommendation - I'll put it on the 'to read' list.