Somehow, despite all the things I’ve ever heard about Venice, I never quite understood this incredibly basic fact: there are no cars. Only boats.
So you can imagine my reaction when I walked out of the train station expecting to splurge on a taxi to my hostel… and instead of a road, there was a river. Whaaaat? I was halfway in a water taxi before the driver kindly informed me it would be 60 euros to my destination. I didn’t know I could move so fast wearing a 40 pound backpack, I hopped right out of that thing. (I ended up taking public transportation, which was… another boat. Sorry, the novelty of it all never really did wear off…).
So, most of my posts have managed to focus on one aspect of a city, but in planning what to write, I’m finding that almost impossible with Venice. Impossible to focus. Which, I think, is actually the overarching theme. Venice is too busy, too varied, too exciting. I really think it’s like the Italian Vegas, except about 2000% more legit, and with fewer skyscrapers. Also the strippers are classier. I mean… what?
Maybe it’s because it’s isolated – a 45 minute boat ride, or a 20 minute train ride – but there’s definitely a certain freedom about Venice. And it’s historical as well – there’s a reason Casanova was Venetian (I’m reading his memoirs now).
I think it all comes down to the masks. You’ve heard of the Venetian masquerades; they’ve got the only Mardi Gras celebration (just called “carneval”) in the world cooler than New Orleans’.
The masks are the physical embodiment of the idea that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice boasted one of the most rigid social hierarchies in Europe, which is why the masks proved so useful. According to a mask-maker I talked to (who was trying so hard to sell me one – sorry buddy!), Carneval lasted 70 days at its height. Eventually, laws were put in place restricting it to 3 months, so this was clearly a lot more than just a pre-Lenten binge-fest. There were a multitude of laws restricting the wearing of masks at other times of the year, so it seems that it was somewhat of a problem. For instance, you were not allowed to wear a mask while gambling. Nor were you allowed to wear a mask while entering a nunnery. So clearly, people were wearing masks to allow anonymity, and impunity from illegal activities, like defaulting on gambling debts, and seducing nuns (oh Casanova, you so naughty). But it went the other way too – people were required to wear masks when voting in certain legislative bodies, to preserve anonymity.
So it seems like masks are the answer to a hyper-restricted society. In a mask, you are aristocrat or peasant, married or unmarried, upstanding citizen or outlaw, male or female… The mask-maker was explaining to me the shape of the white mask you see next to the Guy Fawkes mask: because people would be wearing these masks for weeks and months at a time, this type of mask (the most basic, called a bauta) allowed the wearer to eat and drink without removing it, allowed him to speak freely, but also changed the voice slightly in order to disguise it.
The mask culture is old, celebrated, and absolutely fabulous. Here we have a mask of San Marco cathedral:
And the costume jewelry is TO DIE FOR:
Sorry, I’m a girl and also a princess. I get distracted by shiny things. Back on topic.
There’s great artifice in everything about Venice. For instance, the simple fact that while I was there, I never saw a single food store or supermarket. Aka, the things normal people who live there would need. Conclusion? No one actually lives in Venice. It’s all just tourists. Of course that’s not quite true, I’m sure some people live in Venice, but I thought this was a pretty telling thing. Stores exist to make money, and if everyone is eating at bistros and hotel restaurants (aka tourists), nobody’s going to be selling groceries.
All this just further confirms the Vegas-Venice connection. Vegas has that same freedom and anonymity – no one is actually from Vegas, and after all, who actually lives in Nevada?!
And to conclude, more pretty pictures of the masks of Venice (including several that are obviously not mine):
And of course, what discussion of masks would be complete without a POTO reference?