Wed, Feb 11, 2004 - Page 16 News List

'The most decadent, erotic carnival in the world'

This year's Carnevale has as its theme the `Orient Express,'celebrating Venice's history as the doorway to the East

AFP , Venice, Italy

Venice has cast off a chill midwinter gloom with an explosion of festive color to mark the opening of its annual Carnevale.

Masked 17th century noblemen emerged over the weekend from the mist in St Mark's Square with their marchionesses like figments of the imagination, emphasizing the otherworldly atmosphere of this water-lapped city forever in a state of barely arrested decay.

Others paraded in the grotesque masks and garments of the ancient characters of the Commedia dell'Arte, Harlequin, Pantaloon and Columbine, bought from lines of artisan mask makers stalls. Many wandering, wide-eyed tourists opted to simply have their faces painted.

"I think it's the most decadent, erotic carnival in the world," said Carolina from Germany.

The city fathers hope to top last year's figure of 1 million visitors by stretching the events over an extra week, capitalizing on the lure for foreigners of this crumbling masterpiece of a city where gondolas maneuver like nonchalant swans amid the dank recesses of the canals.

High society will have its fling next week, when the official costume balls and private parties get into swing. Once the preserve of misbehaving nobility, many of these balls are now open to customers, albeit the high-paying sort.

"Most of them are French, who pay between 150 euros to 350 euros (US$190 to US$445) a day to hire a costume," said Dario, on the front desk at the fabled Danieli Hotel, whose costumes are among the most popular.

The prices and the hype have made the exclusive carnival balls the preserve of foreigners from Japan, the US, Germany and France. According to Dario, the Venetians prefer the quiet life.

"To tell the truth, the Venetians, more than anything else, like a bit of peace," he said.

Undeterred, specialized travel companies have sprung up in recent years offering tailor-made Venice excursions with historical costumes, accessories like wigs, and entry to the balls -- at a price.

These range from a US$50 costumed "hot chocolate" at the exclusive Caffe Laverna, Wagner's old haunt, to a more satisfying Venezia Romantica evening at the Hotel Danieli (US$500), arranged by the Events and Shows Production Company.

The most exclusive masked ball will take place at the Gothic Palazzo Pisani-Moretta on the Canale Grande. The uninitiated will be guided through the steps of the quadrilles and other de rigeur group dances by a dancing master.

This year promises more variety than ever as the carnival's "Orient Express" theme celebrates Venice's history as the doorway to the East via the Silk Road exploited by its most famous son, Marco Polo, born here 750 years ago.

A sumptuous costumed parade celebrated "The Return of Marco Polo" last Saturday, and performers from China, Japan, India and Thailand will take over the city's small campi, or squares, over the next two weeks of public and private frolics.

The Beijing Modern Dance Company started performing on Monday.

Mask wearing and mask making are at the heart of carnival. But Claudia Pandolfo, a young Venetian mask-maker whose mail-order customers include Japanese, French and Germans, says the government should crack down on cheap imitation plastic and plaster masks.

"I think there should be a law to protect the artiganato in Venice, because it's a dying art," she said surrounded by the grotesque and beautiful ceramic and papier mache creations in her cramped shop.

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