Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Of Masked Men, Women, Children And Dogs

Some of the fabric bought for the costumes

The last couple of weeks have continued in their extraordinary way. If my life is this rich I cannot imagine what everyone else’s must be like. I’m writing this sitting on Platform 8 at Geneva-Cornavin, the city’s main railway station. I arrived here a fortnight ago and, while so much has happened, it seems to have gone by so quickly. When I arrived at Cornavin I left the station for the 61 bus to France. On arrival at the end of that journey I walked the fifteen minutes journey to P’s apartment. As I turned the key in the lock there were no suprises. P and The Divine Miss M were in full sweatshop mode preparing our costumes for the coming Venice carnival. As always P had been overwhelmed at work and had very little time available for working on costumes. We only went out to buy the fabric four weeks ago and he's done an extraordinary job.

Some more rolls of fabric ready to be turned into costumes
Since then I think Miss M had come up from Annecy every time he had minutes at home. She moved in for the weekends too. The family consider we have a strange relationship. When they gather at family events the three of us - P, Me and The Divine Miss M, become “Les Savoyards”, chiefly on account that we don’t live in Isere, Grenoble being the place of P’s birth and upbringing until he left for his national service in the army. Progress on the costumes had been faster than I expected. P and Miss M work well together. P is the designer and artist who creates his costumes in the most organic of ways. All he required from me were my measurements. He didn’t trust that I had stayed the same over the past four years. He was probably right. What I hadn’t expected was that the costumes were going to be quite so ornate. I should really have known better. I barely had time to shower off the anguish of the journey and consume a bowl of warming soup than I was set to work on my own mask. This time we were using a Columbina design as the basis. Then I had to cut out the shape of the mask from fabric left over from my chemise and sleeves and carefully glue it to the mask. Matching the contours was tricky, but once that was done I could edge the mask with ornate gold trims and start adding shiny gems of costume jewelry. The final addition was to add two layers of fabic to veil my lower face. Once completed I was childishly delighted with the result. While the three costumes were substantially the same they were distingushed mainly by colour. We all had a different main colour. Mine was green.

My mask in progress.

Because I am writing (from his point on) several weeks (no, wait a minute, it's actually months) after the event I am not going to attempt to give a full account. I'll try a share a few pictures to give a flavour of the trip to Venezia and the 2018 carnevale. I shall back date this entry though so that it it falls within a sensible timeline within the context of the blog.

I have so many photographs of the other costumes, but this was a family from Switzerland. Their costumes were beautiful and the children were brilliant and very patient posing for hundreds of photographs, but the little one was SO cold, poor mite!

This gentleman, Philip Von Reutter, is a carnival veteran and well into his seventies. He borrowed the little masked dog from a passing visitor and posed for a few photographs. (edit: Very sadly, Philip passed away in May 2018. For many he characterised the spirit of carnival and will be missed. His costumes were incredibly inventive. I recommend you look for a photograph of his Van Gogh! Oh, okay I'll post one at the end of this essay.)

Philip Von Reuter
These were our day costumes, the ones created by P for this year's carnival. I think Miss M's arms may have been tired by this point. We each had starry, psychedelic banners to hold behind us. The original concept was that they be the walls of a music box out of which we would emerge to do a special dance. I could have predicted we'd be so tight for time on the costumes we'd have no chance to realise the concept properly. As it was, people thought we were celestial beings, and the music box walls became starry banners, not representations of sounds and music! I'd probably have thought the same, so I can't argue.

l-r Marsh, P, The Divine Miss M.
Marsh and P share an intimate moment near the Ponte dei Sospiri.

Nowadays one can only stay costumed and masked for four days. After Shrove Tuesday masks may no longer be worn. In times gone by, though, Venetians stayed masked for six months of the year and got up to all sorts of mischief. Venice had thriving red light areas and customers flocked into the city to take advantage of the city's charms. It was, however, a destination or home for so many gay men that prostitutes complained about the lack of business! In the 1400s the city council was so shocked to discover there were so many gay men not using the facilities provided they paid women to stand on the bridge displaying their breasts as a means of converting these errant souls. Old Whore Street and Tits Bridge are remnants of this unusual municipal facility.  There are no records as to the success of this somewhat inventive plan!

The Tits Bridge end of Old Whore Street
Copping a feel on Tits Bridge

As last time we were able to spend a few days seeing the sights. David took us to see many places we had not seen before including the rooftop terrace of the second largest building in Venice that dates from 1285. Now it is a luxury goods megastore, but it was originally a centre for trade. From the terrace much of Venice is visible.

Kings (or Queens?) on the rooftop terrace of the 800 year old Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the second largest building in Venice.

Given our interests in the mask and costume traditions of the city it was amazing to spend time in the workshop of a traditional family business making papier maché masks. Having made my mask for my carnival costume on a Columbina base in a modern style I wanted to try and decorate a traditionally made mask in a traditional pattern. Taking a plain papier maché Bauta mask as my starting point I borrowed a traditionally decorated mask  and copied the pattern and the colours as best I could. Had we more time it would have been fun to try and incorporate a torn off section of musical notation. I asked about this and there is a story, but I forgot the reason. I'm sure P or David will remember.

Seeing Venice from the water is definitely the best
Last time we came to Venice the only travel on water we did was one trip across the Grand Canal by man-powered traghetto, but mostly we travelled by the motorised vaporetto, the water bus. This time five of us pooled our resources one afternoon and took a trip in a gondola. The skill of the gondolier is staggering. No wonder the training takes five years before one can apply for a licence to trade. Buying a gondola is not cheap either. Got a spare €30k, guv'nor?
Traghetto across the Grand Canal 

Of course Venice has a massive cultural history. Listed in many travel guides as one of the world's "must-see" bookshops the Alta Acqua Libreria fulfils and confounds every expectation and is crowded with visitors. It is stacked from floor to ceiling with (mostly) second-hand books. They are stored according to subject. It also lives up to its name. In case of high water, many of the books are ready piled in a gondola and there are some in enamel bath-tubs too. At the back of the shop is a tiny courtyard and the shop owner has created a staircase from old books. Of course we all had to climb it to see over the wall to the adjacent canal.

The visit was over far too quickly. Eight days is not enough to see everything. It is barely enough to realise that Venice is truly unique in the world and that it is the only city in the world to which I am determined to return. There never has been, nor ever will be again, a place like Venice. Climate change is a very real threat. A month after our visit the Piazza San Marco was nearly waist-deep in water during the Alta Acqua (high tide).

In addition to lots of walking and visits to all kinds of buildings we had seen the works of Titian and and attended a concert of music by Vivaldi. I gave two short performances in the hotel on different evenings. On one of the evenings I sang Referendum Rag. When I got to the harmonica solo, the "Ode To Joy" part, the whole audience sang along - funny, moving and most unexpected. That has never happened when I've sung the song in the UK!

Ciao Venezia

One of Matteo Chinellato's photographs of Philip Von Reuter's Van Gogh


  1. If I may, we are not standing on the Ponte dei Sospiri in that picture, but standing watching over the Ponte Dei Sospiri which is in the background. The story goes that the ponte led into the prison from the tribunal and that's why it was called the Bridge of Sighs. If you crossed that bridge your life was pretty much miserable after that.

  2. Also, one can remain masked and costumed, not just for four days (it depends when you get to Venice), but normally for about a fortnight until Ash Wednesday. The carnival starts officially a couple of Saturdays before Shrove Tuesday, which is the closing day of the carnival.Can you imagine what it would have been like when carnival lasted for 6 months of the year?

  3. Wonderful account. Bravo.

  4. Thanks for your comments, observations and corrections. I have researched more background and I'll edit accordingly.