Baroness Elke-Romana von Schilgen-Arnsberg is convinced that even the stodgiest people love a masquerade. "They start out saying: 'I'm a banker; I can't put on a costume!' But once they're dressed up, they absolutely adore it -- especially the men," says the Venice-based Austrian noblewoman who organizes parties, balls, and theatrical events.
People from all over the world flock to the baroness' half-dozen masked balls -- tickets can run hundreds of dollars -- that she throws every year during Carnival season in Venice (this year it's Feb. 17-28). If you were looking for an excuse to visit Venice in winter, look no further. Caught up in all the city's parties, parades, and street festivities, you won't even notice the cold.
Carnival, which was up and running by the 13th century, is believed to have pagan roots. Still, it was tolerated by the Church as the last sinful binge before Lent. The festivities flourished until the end of the 18th century, when it was outlawed first by Napoleon and then by the Austrian occupiers who ruled the city until 1866. Stage director Maurizio Scapparo revived it in 1980 as part of the Venice Biennale, an art, theater, and film festival. "I put three magic words together -- Carnival, Venice, and theater -- and it stuck," he says.
This year the city government will sponsor a series of outdoor events, including music, acrobatics, and a traditional "flight of the dove," wherein an acrobat descends from the top of the Campanile, the bell tower of Saint Mark's cathedral. (For a calendar of events, go to carnivalofvenice.com and click on the English language page.)
ITALY MEETS CHINA
Scapparo's theater Biennale will produce a rich program of theatrical, film, and musical events on the theme "The Dragon and the Lion," symbolizing the interaction between China and Venice. Events include a dramatization of Invisible Cities, a novel by Italo Calvino based on an imagined dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan; performances by Chinese students, writers, opera singers, clowns, and acrobats; and an exhibit of costumes from Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor. There will be an area (called the "Unforbidden City") that will offer continuous programs for children. "The festival opens with an ancient Chinese fable, the story of Cinderella -- 700 years older than our version -- performed by 15 Chinese children," says Scapparo.
At the private balls, which typically include dinner and theatrical performances, the dress code is strictly costume-only, mainly 18th century velvet, brocade, and lace getups complete with elaborate masks and Mozart-style powdered wigs. The baroness' Ridotto Ball on Feb. 18 will feature a dramatization of Giacomo Casanova's memoir, History of My Life, including the part where the local convent opens its doors -- and the nuns' habits -- to the legendary womanizer.
You still have time to purchase tickets via the baroness' Web site, meetingeurope.com. The Ridotto Ball -- as well as the Tiepolo Ball on Feb. 23 -- costs 390 euros per person, about $462. The Ballo del Doge, the most famous and grandiose of the Carnival balls, staged by costume and home-furnishings designer Antonia Sautter on Feb. 25 (ballodeldoge.com), costs 600 euros, or about $711 per person. Another group, Incentive Harmony, sponsors three balls and an opera evening (incentiveharmony.com). The balls are the most spectacular events, but there are costumed lunches and cocktail parties as well. Top events usually sell out by the end of January.
You don't have an 18th century gown and wig in your closet? No matter. You can rent costumes and masks from any of these promoters or at one of the many local shops that dot the sidewalks and bridges, especially around Saint Mark's Square and the Rialto. Expect to pay anywhere from 150 to 600 euros ($178 to $711) for one night's rental.
If you're serious about attending Carnival, start making plans now. Rooms at the top hotels -- among them the Danieli, the Cipriani, the Gritti Palace, and the Grand Hotel dei Dogi -- are in great demand. You have other choices, of course. Some local nobility rent out apartments and even palaces. The Venice Hoteliers Assn. (www.veneziasi.it) offers online reservations for hotels and guest houses, which are more akin to bed and breakfasts. The most convenient locales are around Saint Mark's Square, but Venice is a small city, and it's easy and inexpensive to get around by vaporetti (public transport boats). You can also travel by water taxi or gondola.
As grand as Venice's Carnival is, you don't need to stay for all 11 days of it. In fact, that may be too much. The best time to go is the last week, and especially the last weekend, when the biggest events take place. And don't rule out a trip just because masked balls aren't your idea of an evening out. You can soak up a lot of the excitement and spectacle of Carnival just by taking a stroll, munching a panino, and watching the jugglers.
By Maureen Kline