Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Behind the mask

It might be difficult to escape from churches in Venice, but religion doesn’t dominate any sense of the city. In some ways, the churches are merely the masks for the real Serenissima.

Although I’ve read a massively abridged version of the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova, his name hadn’t actually crossed my mind in all the pre-trip preparations, research and excitement.

But once there, his connection with the city sprang readily to mind.

The winding streets and narrow passageways seem to reek of illicit assignations and whispered seductions. Half-seen stairways that invite and suggest. Liquid thoroughfares on which to glide in sleek, black gondolas.

Inhale and you can smell it. Open your mouth like a cat and you can taste it. Look out of the very corner of your eye and you can almost see it.

It seeps from stones as smooth as silk, buffed by centuries of lovers travelling between trysts.

Divine decadence and sultry sin: this extraordinary, exotic city; ejaculated out of the mud like a condensed evolution of primordial ooze straight into sophisticated humanity. There is nowhere else like it on Earth.

But it was not just thoughts of Casanova that prompted my mind to such thoughts. Thomas Mann conceived Death in Venice while staying on the Lido, but seeing the city, experiencing it and opening yourself up to it, adds a whole new layer of understanding to that masterpiece of a novella.

Mann knew that Venice was different, and that its exoticism was full of temptation – particularly for anyone of puritanical northern stock. He paints so much of the story in terms of the Greek gods – a world of pleasure; the antithesis of the discipline that art demands of Aschenbach and demanded of Mann himself.

For all the churches, there is something pagan about Venice – and an aura of licence pervades. It’s not just for the fortnight in February when Carnevale takes place, when the poseurs dress up for photographers to immortalise; it’s something more permanent than that – and far darker.

Dangerous, dark and very sexy indeed.

Countless shops sell the famous Carnevale masks – cheap ones with flirty feathers, hanging from the rows of souvenir stalls on the Fundamenta, a few metres from the Doge’s Palace and the twin columns that framed the city’s site of execution.

Other outlets sell fancier and more complex masks. And then there are the specialists – where you can see craftsmen creating masterful recreations of these facilitators of anonymity.

Full-face masks and half-face masks. And then the Medico Della Peste – the ‘plague doctor’s mask’ – so-called because 16th-century French physician Charles de Lorme adopted it as one of a range of sanitary precautions while treating plague victims.

A disguise in which to crush convention and trash taboos. A memento mori – life and voluptuous gratification, eternally ephemeral.

I brought one home – molded leather; a rich red brown with black detail. Forget the churches and the saints and the martyrs: this then is my Venice – a place of transgression and velvet black pleasure.


  1. I had no idea about that mask's origination. Thank you for that tidbit - and for the photo, Syb.

  2. And a design intended to be what we would think of as the orange(or blue)bulging, pressurized, and gasmasked face of a hot zone clinician. The beak was to place some 'prescribed' crush of herbs and nice smelling flowers, under the (quite) mistaken belief that the plague was caused by 'Miasma',quite literally 'Mal Aria'.Too bad that when they stepped in to deliver a sentence of death to all others who resided in one building, the may have scratched at some flea bites on the way to their next condemnation.