Thank heavens, I thought as I watched the raindrops crashing into my windowpane and gale-force winds turning umbrellas inside out. Thank heavens that February is the month of Saint Valentine.
Suddenly love is the air, despite the snow and ice and temperatures that would freeze the nose off a brass monkey in the Northern hemisphere and bring the blood to boiling point down under.
So instead of sitting in your armchair wondering in a disconsolate sort of way where you can go to avoid the extremes, let your imagination go into overdrive and remember the place that first grabbed your heart. Mine was Venice.
I went for Carnevale which, appropriately enough, was now. During the first two weeks of February revelers from all over the world flow into Venice, ready to don their masks and their capes and dance to the city’s music, and I was one of them.
The trip did not begin well. I arrived in the middle of a storm and as my water-taxi launched itself into the lagoon, bound for the Grand Canal, angry waves, brown with silt, lashed furiously against the side. The iconic silhouette of the city was obliterated by a leaden sky and I was convinced I had made a horrendous mistake. Until the next morning.
The leaden skies had become silver, the lagoon had turned pinky purple; out of the mists a couple appeared like a pair of theatrical ghosts. Their arms and legs were bare except for filmy cloaks made seemingly from cobwebs that wafted ineffectually around them. They were Pierrot and Pierrette. Faces painted white except for the bright pink splodges on their cheeks and a gash of red, where their mouths should be and the two of them, as carefree as if it was high summer were having a wonderful time. It was that moment that Venice grabbed my heart, twisted it out of shape and claimed it as her own for the rest of time.
Yes, I know it is in danger of becoming the Magic Kingdom for adults. Yes, I know it heaves with tourists in the summer and is in danger of sinking in the winter. I also know that people have been complaining about over-crowding in Venice since the beginning of time. Over 500 years ago Canon Pietro Casola wrote, “ The Piazza of St Mark’s seems perpetually filled with Turks, Libyans, Parthians and other monsters of the Sea.” That was in 1494, just two years after Christopher Columbus discovered America!
It’s because of that storm, and many others before or since that Venice is saved from becoming just another beautiful, but soulless tourist attraction. There is a female quality about the city, and like any woman she too can throw a tantrum, cut off her nose to spite her face and behave really badly. Storms, floods, smelly canals are all in her repertoire. She can be daunting one moment and flirtatious the next, capturing hearts and minds with spectacular arrogance. Consequently, I am hardly alone. Venice has millions of lovers. The fact that she is mistress of both sexes and all nationalities is part of her charm.
Remember too, that this is the city of Casanova, the world’s greatest lover, who had the whole of Venice in love with him. Except, of course, the husbands, who had him thrown into prison. Obviously he found a way out, and you can still follow Casanova’s escape route in the attics and secret passages of the Doges Palace.
These dark little secrets are all part of carnevale. One is the laughing mask of gaiety and showing off. The other is the mask of mystery. Which was even more fun in Casanova’s day. Men and women from the finest families could wander around town undetected and enjoy incredible adventures. No wonder the playwright, Carlo Goldoni, called the mask ‘the most advantageous thing in the world.
So where else would you spend St. Valentine’s Day? Where else could you dress up in costume, put on a fantastical mask, hand-painted by an artist whose family dates back to the 18th century? Where else could you stride around a city, anonymous and even gender-free behind your mask and cloak, than in Venice? Where else could you tease your loved one and then kiss them all better than in Venice?
It’s a city of love, but it’s not sentimental. It’s a city of beauty but it has its dark and unscrupulous underbelly. It’s a city for grown-ups. I rest my case.
The balls and parties in Venice today require a costume, a mask and some insider information. Most good costumiers can provide all three and they make certain that not only their racks of silks, satins and party hose are kept up to standard but also that their contacts are equally reliable. Atelier Flavia will first dress clients in the greatest finery, complete with wig, lace handkerchief and beauty spot. Only then will they reveal the addresses and contacts for the best balls and finest parties.
Even more lavish is Max Art Shop where Antonia Sautter, organizes the most dazzling balls in the equally dazzling Palazzo Pisano Moretta, overlooking the Grand Canal. To attend these balls one must be in costume and, says Antonia darkly, ‘a tuxedo is not a costume’. You’ll see why when you see the costumes on offer.
Every second shop is either a mask shop or a glass shop and if you are looking for originals beware of copies, which can be Made In China. The most famous, which Stanley Kubrick used for the movie, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is Mondo Novo. Good masks, but if you’re looking for a warmer welcome try La Bottega dei Sogni (the shop of dreams) in Rialto. Another is La Bottega dell’Arte in Campo San Barnaba in Dorsoduro. Then there is Ca’Macana, also in Dorsoduro and La Venexiana Atelier at Ponte Canonica in Castello and also in the Frezzeria beyond San Marco. El Sole e La Luna is also in the Frezzeria.
Sandra’s book, ‘Venice Revisited’ can be found on Amazon.