Friday, February 5, 2016

The World of Carnevale, and Piazza San Marco, in a Soap Bubble

I'm not sure that the entertainers making soap bubbles this afternoon in Piazza San Marco with their long string loops thought of them as having any particular connection to Carnevale--after all, you can find people making bubbles that way year-round in Venice (and elsewhere), especially during the warm weather months. But bubbles in Western Art (as evident in paintings by artists like Jean Siméon Chardin (Soap Bubbles) and Rembrandt (Cupid Blowing Soap Bubble)) are all about the transience of human life, as Carnevale itself is.

Carnevale aims to present an iridescent pageant of pleasures, a shimmering world of surface effects and diversions: life stripped of its usual heaviness of being, its usual order turned upside down or reflected in surprising ways. It doesn't last for long, of course (though in the eighteenth-century Venice extended it as long as it could for the sake of business), and then, poof!, it's gone and Ash Wednesday and Lent is upon us.

I wouldn't have thought of any of this except for the curious fact, which I'd never noticed before today, that you can see the whole of Piazza San Marco in a soap bubble (as you can see in the images above and below; none of them processed in any way other than being lightened or darkened a bit). There it all was, the whole magnificent space: the campanile, the basilica, the temporary Carnevale pavilions, the huge video screen, even the people filling it (if you enlarge the image enough). A miniature, twinned, yin-and-yang image of the whole Piazza floating through the actual Piazza itself: a flock of such images, in fact. Or rather like a cluster of clone cells cast out into circulation, carrying the exact genetic material of the Piazza. If the wind carried one such cell to an uninhabited island in the lagoon might a new Piazza be spawned there?

But of course the bubbles never even last long enough to escape the confines of the Piazza itself. Carnevale, on the other hand, will be around for another five days and I'll have more pictures of it this weekend.        

Detail of the image above

A second soap bubble, the same Piazza

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Noble Laborer of Carnevale, This Morning

Just as nobility in the old Venetian Republic had their particular dress code, so certain workmen in present-day Venice have their own. The great achievement of the woman's costume above, which I happened upon this morning after dropping off my son at school, is to ingeniously combine the two.

Her imaginatively-detailed and well-tailored 18th-century patrician suit is made of the reflective orange material worn by today's operai, and features not only small reproductions of workmen's tools (the small plier, wrench and brick decorating her sleeve below), but incorporates some of the actual equipment itself into the costume: most prominently, the orange traffic cone, complete with warning light, that tops her tri-corner hat.

But even the gray "curls" of her would-be wig turn out to be, on closer examination, simply equal-length sections of plastic foam tubing (perhaps used as insulation on pipes) glued one below the other.

From a historical perspective, part of the costume's humor comes from the fact that actual patricians in the old Republic were forbidden to do most kinds of labor, as most kinds were considered inappropriate to their class. Impoverished nobles in the later Republic, for example, who'd squandered or gambled away their wealth and its sources, could work as dealers in one of the casinos, but many depended on financial assistance provided to poor members of their class by the state, doing their best to keep up the required appearances (the right clothes in the right colors and fabrics)* on limited funds: dressing and posing as nobility, in other words, on permanent holiday. Though probably with a good deal less enjoyment than those people who now come to Venice on holiday during Carnevale to dress up and pose as nobles.    

In any case, the men on either side of the costumed woman in the image above, wearing their own contemporary standard-issue orange work coats, just happened to be unloading a work boat near the Ponte della Paglia as she passed on her way to Piazza San Marco.

They were amused by her get-up, and readily posed beside her (while a photographer with the costumed noble suggested various poses). Then, still smiling, they went back to the real work of their ordinary day, while she went off to pose in the Piazza among the other costumed celebrants of Carnevale. 

*John Julius Norwich writes: "Already in the 17th century an ominous feature of the social life of the city was the growing class of impoverished nobles who, tending as they did to live in or near the parish of San Barnabà, were popularly known as the barnabotti. As official members of the Venetian aristocracy, they were required to dress in silk and continued to  be entitled to their seats in the Great Council; many, however, were too poor or too uneducated to occupy any but the lowest administrative positions, and since they were debarred by their rank from working as craftsmen or shopkeepers, increasing numbers drifted into corrupt practices... or lived on poor relief." (A History of Venice, Chapter 45). 

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Soldier in a Silent Invasion, This Evening

In my five years of living here, and five years of Carnevale,  I've rarely taken images of the many mysterious silent masked figures who migrate to Venice at this time of year. They're the favorite subjects of the scores of photographers who also roost here at this time of year, many of them professionals, so I saw no reason to simply repeat what so many other folks were doing. And generally I find the human face more interesting than a mask when it comes to taking pictures.

But I turned the corner this evening and there was this character, cleverly alight, and there were the columns and San Giorgio di Maggiore and it was almost as though I was actually looking at one of these figures for the first time. How odd it must be to spend all day being looked at by so many people but never actually seen, to be blatantly on display while being completely concealed. In a city that offers unlimited opportunities for people-watching, how particular must be the experience when it is done from behind one of these masks, within one of these costumes--an object of the public gaze who, paradoxically, is more seeing than seen.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Carried Away: Festa delle Marie

Half of the contingent of Marias carried down Via Garibaldi
The usual quiet of the riposo period along Via Garibaldi, when all its shops are typically shut up, was broken yesterday by the procession of the 12 Marias (or La Festa delle Marie), passing through from its starting point on the island of San Pietro di Castello and headed (via the Riva) for Piazza San Marco, where the newly-finished Carnevale stage and a large crowd awaited.

The celebration's origins are usually placed more than 1,000 years ago, in 943, and involve pirates, lovely brides, kidnapping, treasure, and a heroic pursuit by the wronged Venetians, led by their fearless doge. A succinct account of the feast's history can be found in English and Italian here: A more extensive illustrated account of both the past and present versions is available in Italian here: A more extensive historical overview in English is here:

I had the luxury and pleasure yesterday of working with another photographer, my eight-year-old son, Sandro, and give photo credit where needed. 

photo credit: Sandro Varni
photo credit: Sandro Varni

photo credit: Sandro Varni

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Double Vision in Piazza San Marco: The Build-Up to Carnevale

Watching the workmen in Piazza San Marco late yesterday afternoon hurrying to complete the large stage and its extensions before the activities of Carnevale begin in earnest this weekend I found myself feeling sorry for any designer charged with the task of devising a set of magical temporary structures in what has long been one of the most fantastic squares in Europe. Even the most whimsical vision realized in lumber has no hope of ever competing with just the basilica of San Marco alone, its eccentricities and excesses and exoticism. It's that strange instance in which something especially constructed for a holiday can't help but be rather dull compared to the same old structure you see everyday.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Carnevale Opens with a Venetian Air

Most Venetians I know don't get too excited about Carnevale, unless they're young children, the parents of young children (to a somewhat lesser degree), or business people who profit from the crowds (to a calculating degree). The absence of much Venetian involvement in the festivities is why Piazza San Marco can sometimes feel more like a convention center to me during Carnevale than a festive civic center or the "grandest drawing room in Europe." The Venetian spirit of Carnevale is usually found in these weeks on calli or in campi or patronati (parish halls beside the churches) away from the Piazza.

At least after the opening weekend, that is. For the opening weekend, which just took place yesterday and the day before, can still bring out adult Venetians--to the floating entertainment on the Canareggio Canal that took place Saturday night, and to yesterday's Corteo Acqueo down the Grand Canal organized by the association of rowing clubs in the lagoon.

This is the best--perhaps only--time to see adult Venetians in costume, and one of the very rare times during the year you can hear actual Venetian songs being sung on the Grand Canal (instead of the ubiquitous "Volare" whose originator, Domenico Modugno, was born in Bari). In fact, the trio of musicians in red-and-white striped shirts above were singing a song I'd heard of before, but never actually heard sung in its entirety:

Scarpe e calseti
Piatti e pironi
Porte e balconi
Che sá da freschin.

So nato a Venessia
So fio de pescaor
Par quindese giorni 
Se magna el saor.

Shoes and socks
Dishes and forks
Doors and balconies
They all smell of fish.

I'm a native Venetian
The son of a fisherman
For fifteen days
We eat el saor.

(The story of where I first learned about this song is here: If you find yourself on a gondola ride anytime soon that includes a singer as part of the package you might ask if he--it's always a he--knows the el saor [a sardine dish] song.)

In any case, the corteo began at the Punta della Dogana and made its way down the Grand Canal to the Canareggio Canal, where typical Venetian dishes were promised along its banks. I didn't go there myself, but, according to the local papers, some 70,000 other folks did. Or 15,000 more people than currently reside in Venice. If only that many people still lived here! 

The passengers on the number 1 vaporetto above found themselves held up at the San Tomà stop while the parade passed--but in exchange for the delay they received a great view of the proceedings