AT the Carnival it is from the Piazza and the Piazzetta that the processions start and all the exhibitions and performances of this mad season. And everything takes place to-day just as it did yesterday and as it did two hundred, or even five hundred years ago, as is shown in a pretty composition by Vanutelli which we found in the Gallery of the Princess Matilda. The painter has placed his scene under the arcades of the Ducal Palace; it is there that to-day a whole troupe of masqueraders come to play their lazzi, for the Carnival of Venice, which is just as celebrated as the Roman Carnival and which has served as a theme for poets and musicians and on which Gozzi, Paganini and Theophile Gautier have embroidered their Pizzicati, is not so dead as people would have us believe; the tradition exists if the genius of the people has changed. The Carnival week, though quieter than it used to be, still attracts strangers; it is the season of intrigues and festivals when the entire population seems intoxicated by the very air. There are two very distinct parts in the Carnival of Venice :the carnival of the street and the carnival of the drawing room. Not long ago people went masqued to St. Mark’s Place and the Fenice, and gave themselves up to merry mystification that recalled the good old days of Venice in the Eighteenth Century; this was the age of supper-parties, barcarolles, serenades and Venetian festivals, which last words include everything. To-day the aristocracy is reserved and discreet; a few swell masquerades, a few masqued balls given in a setting worthy of the costumes, a few gay suppers and a few serenades, and the festival is over. Guardi, the painter of delicate touch, the piquant colourist, shows us the balls in the Ducal Palace, the Ridotti, the promenaders on the Piazza with their black velvet masques, their three cornered hats, and that Venetian cloak that has become the livery for carnival gaieties throughout Europe. Of all this nothing remains now, and what is left is difficult to describe and would escape the notice of a passing stranger; one must be of Venetian origin to enter, or even be admitted to, these pleasures and to appreciate their charm.
But the street is more lively; the corporations club together and give the city a show; each year they have a new idea and a new way of executing it : an allegorical car, a Bucentaur, a scene full of life and colour in which the celebrated heroes, Vesta Zenda and Tato are seen, and the illustratious Pantaloon harangues the crowd from his throne erected on the Piazzetta in front of the two large granite columns. Pantaloon has arrived at the head of his procession which assembled in the court of the deserted convent of San Sepolcra; he goes the whole length of the Riva dei Schiavoni, preceded by his Turkish guards; bridges have been thrown across the canals that intersect the quay, so that nothing interrupts the masquerade along its route.
The painters of the Arsenal and painters of other buildings, all in costume, form a guild and sing choruses; other civic guilds form themselves into brass bands, for there are no festivals without music in Venice.
The procession is long and the whole city follows it; the banners that are carried in front of it are borne by men dressed as Turks, and another body pretends to guard them; behind them follow the Chioggiotti, the fish-vendors of Chioggia, who carry on their arms elegant baskets filled with fish made of sugar, which they throw into the balconies all along the way; and the whole street presents a number of those grotesque scenes that have been preserved by Guardi’s brush.
After the Chioggiotti, who have their own band, usually costumed in mediaeval dress, come the Epigrams of the year: these are monster masques, gigantic personages who recall those occurring in the carnivals of the northern cities of France; they are numerous and always represent a satirical epigram in allusion to a celebrity of the season, or some actual event is symbolised by each person. Often a political personage is chosen for the allusion, and many times, in-deed, the authorities have had to intervene and prevent the caricature of a foreign minister or sovereign.
After the great masques come groups of all kinds, following according to popular fancy; but there is nearly always a general idea for the whole procession, the burlesque groups forming detached episodes, framed in the whole; nobody is deceived by anything and there is great applause.
Arriving at the Piazzetta, Pantaloon, who is king of the festival, mounts his throne and harangues the crowd in Venetian dialect, and, as he can wag his tongue glibly, the people reward him with acclamations. He descends, resumes his place at the head of the procession and goes to the Piazza, in the centre of which a circular ball-room, about the height of the Cafe Florian and Cafe Quadri, has been erected. The orchestra takes its place and the most important masquers lead the dances; the Piazza is filled, and the crowd is lively, joyous and bright with colour; a great number of people wear fancy costumes and take an active part in the amusements.
This is the overture to the popular festival, the inauguration of the Carnival, and as these people thoroughly understand how to provide amusements, every day brings a new pleasure and surprise. In the evening the Piazza we are describing is fairy-like; it is very brilliantly lighted by a method used only on these occasions: if it is fine weather you can walk about in dancing-shoes, for as the Piazza is paved, it is a veritable ballroom; the cafes are crowded at this time; the tables are even carried into the middle of the Piazza and you can stroll about in the open air as if you were at a gigantic ball.