Old inhabitants had told us that the spirit of Carnival was as dead in Venice as were the magnificence and glories of the sad, lonely, old palaces on the brink of the Grand Canal, so that we were prepared to be disappointed in a sight of which we had heard and read so much all our lives.
‘But,’ said one of our informants—that fine-headed old fellow who during the summer months sits to scores of painters as an Apostle or a Doge, but who in winter-time is reduced to haunting the gondola-landing stage opposite Saint Mark’s, pulling in the craft with his boat-hook, and holding forth his greasy old cap for coppers—’ it may be better this year; for all the proceeds of the booths and shows are to go to the.poor people who have been washed out of their homes by the inundations in the north.’
At any rate, we resolved to see what fun there was; and, as the evening gun boomed from the arsenal by the church of San Georgio Maggiore, we landed.
If the efforts of man were to be disappointing, nature at least did her best to favour the course of events ; for a cloudless, deep-blue, star-studded sky stretched overhead, and the ‘Bora,’ which had been blowing for some days, had given place to the gentlest of breezes, and a temperature very much milder than our own at home in early spring.
Although the actual Carnival proceedings were not to commence until half-past eight, a very considerable crowd had assembled under the piazzas in the great square and about the open spaces surrounding the ancient Palace of the Doges. Yet it was not the Carnival crowd which we had pictured to ourselves. Wearers of motley were very few and far between, and by far the greater proportion of promenaders were ordinary citizens, soldiers, country-folk, peasantwomen—painted and powdered hideously, as is the Venetian fashion from highest to lowest—and onlookers like ourselves.
For some days previous, the students, who seem to take the lead in all public festivities in Italian towns, had been busily engaged in rigging up booths with wood supplied to them gratis by the government upon the condition that they should do all the carpenter-work themselves; and from an early hour of morning these booths had been doing a roaring trade.
As foreign visitors, we were in duty bound to patronize each and every show at the modest outlay of one penny per head for each; not to mention the risking of similar sums in lotteries, of which the principal feature seemed to be the tempting display of prizes obtainable and the very few prizes obtained; and the purchasing of all sorts of worthless gewgaws from voluble gentlemen in motley, who pounced upon us with eagle eyes, and who simply compelled us to buy by the process of thrusting the articles into our hands, and reminding us in pathetic tones that it was all for charity.
As might have been expected, the pennyworths which we saw in the booths were very dear at the price; but even if it was only to reward the energetic gentlemen who raved and sung and danced and gesticulated on the platforms outside, it was worth the outlay. They were far more real curiosities in our eyes than the peepshows, the gymnastics, the collections of stuffed animals, the comic pictures, the broadfarce acting to be seen within. Only men with the restless, fervid warmth of the southern sun in their veins could have kept the game up as they did; and they were amply rewarded for their benevolent exertions by the crowds of chattering, laughing people who streamed in and out incessantly.
The Venetian portion of the public entered thoroughly into the fun of these exhibitions; but the stolid peasantry from the great poultry breeding-farms on the mainland did not at all seem to appreciate why they should pay a penny to look through a glass only to see the words ‘Please, don’t tell,’ written on a card within; or why they should take the trouble to arrange themselves carefully in a chair to be photographed, and after much ‘business,’ be shown their own reflections in a piece of mirror.
Most assuredly, if there was little to be seen for a penny, there was plenty to be heard; for every booth had its big drum and French-horn and cymbals, to which penny whistles, speaking-trumpets, . and Jew’s-harps might in most cases be added. In fact, to make as much uproar as possible seemed to be the general object; and the more discordant the sounds, the better the public seemed to be pleased.
But the real fun of the fair was centred in the Place of Saint Mark; and as the quaint old illuminated clock showed the minutes gradually creeping along to the half-hour after eight, the booths began to be deserted, and the human tide set for the square.
Here a large platform had been built for dancing, and all around it surged and swayed a dense crowd, a small proportion of which was fancifully dressed. As the great bell in the campanile tolled the half-hour, a hundred gas-jets were lighted as by magic; the crowd pressed to the entrances with their fifty centesimi in their hands; and a really fine orchestra, dressed in half-and-half red-and-white, struck up the famous and familiar Carnavale di Venezia. The dark masses of people seem to leap suddenly into party-coloured costume, and we begin to think that, after all, Carnival is not so dead as it is represented, especially when we notice that amongst the crowd of dancers there are very few who have not either a costume or a mask.
Evidently, aristocratic Venice does not patronise the dancing platform; for although the time kept is admirable, the performance of the steps is rudimentary in the extreme, and one can scarcely associate the apparent pace and vigour with the refined drawing-rooms of such Venetian palaces as are not inhabited by Hebrew curio-sellers. There seems, too, to be a lack of ladies, although gentlemen in outrageous female costume are plentiful enough, so that the spectacle of two big fellows whirling round and round with the most lugubrious faces imaginable is very common.
Meanwhile, the strains of the band have tended to swell the outside crowd immensely, and it may be fairly supposed that the whole of plebeian Venice is here present. We are not very much struck with the style of fun prevalent; and the chief impression we carry away is one of marvel that men of presumably reasoning age can bring themselves down so nearly to the level of monkeys.
The great joke seemed to be for a group of men or women—sometimes it was hard to tell which was which—to surround a harmless old woman or a stray boy, to gibber, jabber, and grimace, and to offer consolation in the shape of sweetmeats. Or they would invade the great cafes, the Quadri, or the Aurora, or Flarian’s, drinking up every one’s beer, making free with stray hats and sticks, and generally turning things upside down. However, there was universal good-humour and happiness; and we rather cry-off instituting a comparison between their behaviour and that of an English crowd under similar circumstances.
During the whole four evenings, and we were there until midnight upon each, we did not notice a single case of intoxication or misbehaviour, or hear a solitary angry expression used. Carnival levels all men, and actions which at other times would have produced fierce jabbering and possibly stiletto-work, were upon these evenings treated with good-humour. Stay—there were two exceptions to the general rule of good behaviour, and these were two firemen from an English ship in harbour, and they were just sober enough to be able to stand.
One very distinct evidence that Carnival is dying is that very few ‘good’ people don masks or play the fool. With the exception of a company of student Pierrots—of whom more anon—the disguised gentry seemed to be of very low degree; and this was palpable, not only from the trumpery nature of the garments worn, but from their style of fun. A Venetian rough is probably more refined than an English rough; but if he is given licence he will come out in his true colours just as clearly as a man of any other country.
Occasionally we came across a really good costume or saw a bit of genuinely comic acting; but upon the whole the Carnival fun of lively Venice was very inferior to what we subsequently saw at stolid, phlegmatic Basle. To talk in a squeaking falsetto, to take people by surprise by suddenly bawling into their ears, to jump and dance frantically about, to blow tin trumpets, and wind watchmen’s rattles, seemed to comprise the notion of Carnival fun entertained by most of the maskers. Allegorical designs, political and patriotic processions and effigies, were conspicuous by their absence, probably on account of the want of wheeled vehicles in Venice.
The traditional Englishman with his yellow whiskers, his projecting teeth, his tall white hat with the green veil, his umbrella and opera glasses, was of course represented, as was the English meeg, a hideous being, outrageously dressed. A quack doctor with his apothecary, a party of men dressed as fiends, and some old ladies with huge coal-scuttle bonnets, created some amusement; but it seemed to us that the majority of spectators seemed to look upon the whole affair with pity and contempt, although it did afford them an excuse for taking many more turns round the piazza than they would ordinarily have done.
An Italian crowd is rather ‘garlicky’ and very hot; and as the ceaseless din was getting wearisome, we bethought ourselves of a certain German restaurant famous for its beer, situated some little way from the centre of action. We were somewhat surprised to find all the lanes and alleys leading out of the square crowded with maskers and spectators, and still more so to find that the restaurant itself was crammed to overflowing, and that such luxuries as a vacant table or chair had to be waited for and pounced upon when found. The waiter confidentially whispers to us that there will be fun presently. We are glad of this, and wait for it.
At the expiration of ten minutes, there is a roar at the other end of the huge room, and a company of Pierrots, a dozen in number, make their way frantically up, chaffing right and left, tipping a hat off here, drinking up a glass of beer there, screeching through tin horns under the direction of an admirably got-up individual with a white silk standard. These men are of a better class; for their white suits are of fine flannel, they have white kid gloves, and their feet are encased in dainty pumps. One of them is evidently an acquaintance or relative of an old lady who is sitting with her family at a table next to us. She beckons to him and whispers something in his ear, nodding significantly towards us.
The young fellow starts a screech in his horn, and immediately the whole troupe, jumping over tables and chairs, surround us, jabbering away in horrible French and worse English, gesticulating and expressing burlesque delight at seeing us. The result is that we are laden with bonbons and souvenir cards, and shake hands affectionately with each one. We could not help wondering whether solitary foreigners in the midst of a festive excited assembly of English students would have been treated with similarly marked courtesy and politeness.
From us they proceeded about the room, playing all sorts of jokes and antics, and creating roars of laughter wherever they went; and when they left the room, other groups of maskers came in, and the same scenes were repeated, until the noise became so deafening, and the atmosphere so powerful, that we cleared out into the comparatively fresh air.
At midnight, when we gradually made our way towards the landing-place, the fun was at its height; and long after we were ensconced in our berths we could hear the sounds of shouting and music wafted across the water.
For four days this buffoonery was kept up. Upon the last day, Sunday, the first bicycle races that had ever been held in Venice took place round the square. Although the riding was ludicrous in the extreme—and the performers were members of the considered-to-be crack Milan Club — the excitement of the English mob upon Epsom Downs during the race for the Derby is but as the effervescence of a ginger beer bottle when compared with the excitement of the good people of Venice over these races. Men tore their hair, and cried and embraced, and shouted themselves hoarse over the various events, the winners of which seemed to be regarded as popular heroes for the time being; the nearest parallel to it which the writer can recall being the scene at Kennsington Oval after the victory of the Australian cricket team over England last year.
Thus ended the Venice Carnival of 1883. We saw very similar scenes enacted subsequently at Padua, Verona, and Milan; but not until we arrived at Basle did we get a fair idea of a continental Carnival. Basle, however, does not come within the scope of this paper, so the writer may conclude, merely stating that although disappointed, we were enabled to see the Italian people under conditions not very frequently witnessed by English travellers, who, as a rule, choose the summer and autumn months for their exploration of the fascinating ‘Queen of the Adriatic’
Chambers’s journal: Volume 60 – Page 193