From the water on a vaporetto or gondola, the houses, palaces and romantic bridges that line Venice’s canals seem to rise out of mist and fog like apparitions floating on a cloud of water.
The cold misty fog seems in keeping with Venice’s elegant decaying palaces, romantic bridges and maze of narrow twisting alleyways variously known as calle, salizzade and ruge.
At the height of power, this mysterious city with a dazzling past and an uncertain future controlled the West’s trade with the East and was the door to its fabulous and exotic wealth. This is how it got its distinctive Phoenician look.
The setting for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Venice has put writers, poets and filmmakers under its romantic spell.
Venice is like a stage and the triangle between Rialto, San Marco and Accademia like a revolving play – never more so than during the celebrated Carnevale.
During this 10-day street party leading up to Ash Wednesday, costumed revellers fill the city’s streets but the centre of activities is Piazza San Marco.
Carnevale is a time for dressing up, merriment, dance, mime, theatre, opera and parties.
Before Venice became a region of Italy (in 1866), it had the most luxurious court in Europe. The wild celebrations of Carnevale went on for months at a time.
What many don’t know, however, is that for nearly two centuries, from 1798 until relatively recently, it didn’t happen and was even officially banned under the Fascists. It was only reintroduced in the 1980s.
Carnevale, a pre-Lent celebration, begins each year two Fridays before Ash Wednesday, finishing on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.
But, even if you can’t visit Venice during Carnevale, you’ll still get the feel of the event in the many mask shops which grace the city. The windows of these shops are filled with elaborately decorated paper mache and leather masks of all colours, shapes and sizes.
Masks have always been a central feature of the carnival since 1268. The masks of Carnevale personify Venice, a fantasy city whose real life is hidden behind a tourist veneer and hardly ever revealed to strangers.
To keep up with the demand, maskmakers (mascherari) working in artisan’s studios called laborotorio, toil year round to produce elaborate handpainted fantasies decorated with gesso, gold leaf, natural feathers and gems. You can see them working in their studio-shops in the neighbourhoods of San Palo and Dorsoduro.
Traditionally masks were used to hide the wearer’s identity and social status, so Carnevale was a time for fun, but also obscurity. As no-one can recognise you beneath your mask, it was an opportunity for illicit dalliances and the breaking down of social barriers.
Carnevale takes place in Venice each year in winter, the best time to see Venice, one of the few places that can claim to be more beautiful in winter than in summer. Cloaked in mist and fog she wears her wintry cloak like a grand dame dressed for the opera. While most cities are at their worst in winter, Venice is at her most atmospheric and magical.
And, when the tourist throngs thin out to provide near uninterrupted views of Venice’s visual masterpieces, you can stand in that amazing drawing room, the huge marble piazza known as San Marco with nothing between you and the white filigreed limestone dazzle of the Doges Palace, save your breath and the fluttering of pigeons.
It’s still one of the world’s greatest drawcards and the good news is, Venice hasn’t sunk – it’s better than ever.