Sunday, February 22, 2009


Whatever it is, whatever it is supposed to be, it isn't.

There are enchanting moments for sure, and then moments when the crowd churns like a wave breaking. The vibe is generally mellow given the number of people, lacking in rage and menace and violence, but nobody seems to know where they're going or what they're doing. It is incoherent, and worst of all, it is quite joyless.

The old festivals of misrule that Carnevale arises from made a concious and socially necessary point of turning the world upside down for a limited period of time. The beggar became King, and the King beggar, everything went topsy-turvy, everything was permitted without having to worry about retribution later. This served a tremendous social and political function, as an escape valve for everyone, high and low.

But what is happening here in Venice is a pallid shadow of an 18th Century model that still hasn't figured out what it wants to be when it grows up, if it grows up. There's no exuberant dancing in the streets, as in Rio; nor the kind of public partying we saw in New Orleans. In fact, there's nothing much but the costumes people wear and, this year, even those were lackluster. You can probably blame the economy for that.

Overall the crowds have been lackluster and business has not boomed. But good carnival or bad, carnival or any other time of year, the city's population swells on the weekends, and particularly on Sunday. This is the second and last Sunday of Carnevale 2009, and sure enough the streets are swamped by a human tide. It wasn't a record breaking number, but the city was busting at the seams with people whose major activity is taking pictures. You can't count the cameras, everything from cellphones to twelve pound SLRs with yard-long lenses to shoulder-mount video rigs.

The game is simple: you either take pictures or pose. This is the dance of narcissism and voyeurism I mentioned above. But it gets increasingly complex.

The English girl posing in a rented costume on the steps in front of Caffe Florian is taking a picture of the American guy with the really big lens who is taking a picture of her.

He got jostled aside by a crowd of Englishmen in medieval armor and they danced to the same step as she shouted encouragement and shook her hoop-skirted hips. (It led nowhere; they all moved on to take and be in more pictures.)

Meanwhile, for most of the time, nothing happens on the stage in the center of Piazza San Marco, the epicenter of Carnevale. When, finally, at 3PM, something does happen, the Most Beautiful Costume competition, it borders on banal, dwarfed by the crowd, outshone by the kids not even bothering to watch. There are better costumes off-stage than onstage. There is more interest in the crowd, jostling to see, than in what they are jostling to see. It's all just something else to take pictures of, a sort of cluster-fuck Photo Op.

Carnevale deserves better, but the crowd doesn't seem to care. They are doing what they really came here to do. Pose or take pictures. Or both.

This incessant photo-taking is par for the course here, fault the city's ravishing beauty. People are taking pictures everywhere all the time almost twelve months a year. The same pictures are taken twenty million times a season, and anyone who thinks they've found an undiscovered angle is simply naive. It has all been shot before, and will be shot again.

But the focus shifts at Carnevale. The people don't come to see Venice; they come to take pictures of themselves and of each other. The ancient monuments, no less beautiful than last week, take back seat to cheap confetti and tacky store-bought costumes. Nobody even pretends to notice them; they don't matter. For a millenium this space had astonishing civic and religious importance; the space was revered. This gave the rites of Carnevale a special symbolic significance. This was the ceremonial heart of Venice. Today, it means nothing, not even for the majority of merchants for whom, in the past at least, it meant buckets of money.

In the Piazza and the Piazzetta, the crowd is vast and dense; at times you lose your freedom of motion and simply have to go with the current or exhaust yourself trying to go against it.

It is frustrating when you know where you want to go and the current, which doesn't, is going in the opposite direction. I know the area very well and still found myself gridlocked at various escape routes. I battled my way out convinced that nothing short of the Second Coming was worth battling that crowd. Sadly, what there was, wasn't.

There is no money. There is no entertainment to speak of. There is no center. It would be better if something were happening, and periodically there is, but it is quickly swallowed up in a mad surge in a random direction.

In the end not even the costumes can hold up under the pressure of being there. What should be fabulous isn't fabulous enough. It all seems slight and tired, as light and spent as the confetti.

And it certainly wasn't all that good for business. Places usually closed on this final Sunday were open, like the bar on my corner near the Accademia. Many areas outside of Piazza San Marco were clogged with people. But the gondolas were largely empty. The shop keepers smoked in their doorways, looking bored and annoyed. Nobody was really buying.

Perhaps it is the weight of the world collapsing around us; but old Venice partied like mad through its collapse. This is a party without partying, at least in the streets, where the parties should be. I can't tell you how it went at all the private parties charging 500 Euros and up to get in, but it's hard to imagine that they could have been doing as booming a business as the face-painters who paint extravagant designs flecked with glitter on your face for 3 euros.

If we're lucky, this will be the last Carnevale like this.

It is such a missed opportunity. Whenever this many people congregate in one place at one time, anything is possible and nobody seemed to be taking advantage of the possibilities. Music and magic can warm up the vibe until a sense of community blossoms, but not spontaneously. It has to be arranged. Being thrown together on a shoestring budget doesn't by definition mean cheap and tacky. All it takes is a little imagination and good music, a little dancing on the old stones of the Piazza, to bring people together in a positive way and fill the streets with joy. Instead, the narrow dance of narcissism and voyeurism, as dead as the undead, fills the void as people wander aimlessly looking for something that isn't there.

Carnevale remains a great idea waiting to happen.

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