Italy, the seat of the Catholic Church, houses the Venice Carnival, the celebration considered to be the most evocative and picturesque festival in the world. The Venetian government made the event official in 1296 when they declared the day before Lent as a day of festival.
What makes the Venetian Carnival unique is its unusual schedule. Any other carnival around the world reaches its top moment and then closes in a single day, generally with a pageant of floats or groups of masqueraders. The public is usually separated from the maskers.
However, in Venice things are completely different. The carnival develops between the opening day (with the traditional flight of a small dove) and the closing one. It’s during the intervening days that the city displays the real point of such an event–its history and tradition, which, for those who live it beyond a mask, is indeed difficult to let go.
Each year the board of the organization suggests a theme for the masks and fancy dress costumes, sometimes recalling geographical places, sometimes either recent or past historical events. Nevertheless, the suggestion invariably fails and is then ignored.
The masqueraders remain the products of the real carnival makers–the people who are used to wearing a fancy dress costume connected with the authentic tradition of the Venetian Carnival.
Experiencing The Venice Carnival As A Photographer
No doubt, living the Venetian Carnival is a bonding experience. Living it as a photographer is something even greater. Its magic lies in the imperceptible link between the maskers and their city.
Thanks to its urban characteristics and amazing palaces, Venice turns into a wide theatre where spectators and actors share the same stage. For a photographer, the city is a meaningful source of inspiration and expression, provided that he is not distracted by the cheerful atmosphere away from not only the people, but also the houses, canals, gondolas–the city itself.
During the carnival, Venice–a one-of-a-kind town–wears its mask, winking at actors and spectators, at masqueraders and tourists. It welcomes everyone to its most charming places with fancy-dress balls arranged in ancient palaces.
It fills its narrow streets and alleys with parades of masqueraders wearing amazing costumes which may cost thousands of dollars.
As you walk along the “Calli and Campi” (the typical alleys and squares in Venice), everything is magic and common at the same time. There are no excesses since everything is excess in itself. It’s a wide, all-inclusive party involving anybody who finds himself joining in.
It reassesses and exalts the sense and meaning of widespread grandeur and magnificence. You are served by masked sales clerks. In restaurants waiters wear costumes, and masked barmen make coffee while you, yourself a masquerader, sit among other customers dressed in costumes.
Hints and spurs come from everywhere, and you run the risk of shooting whatever you can, especially if you are experiencing the Venetian Carnival for the first time. To take unusual photos, you should represent your own carnival, not just the event.
You should work out your own inner course within the wide theatre and let yourself be wrapped in the breathtaking atmosphere of the city, caught by the rays of light blazing from the cornices, plunged in the lighted squares, attracted by the friezes that mingle with the masks.
You should make attempts to find the most picturesque and secluded spots, so you are not drawn away by the crowd.
In fact, many masqueraders leave the well-known places to stroll along the most secluded alleys in search of photographers who, in turn, are looking for them. Masqueraders often leave a business card with a photographer.
In this way, they invite the photographer to send them their snapshots by e-mail. I myself usually collect visiting cards from people who come from all over Europe, Japan, or even the United States to wear their masks in Venice.
Photographing the Venetian Carnival speaks to your own unconscious. It means looking inside yourself to find out what you see of yourself beneath the masks. It’s not just the appearance that should impress you, but also the similarities with your own self.
This is the only way to create snapshots that are indeed unique among all the others taken during the most photographed carnival in the world.
Beyond the mask, I try to capture the glance of the one who wears it or the context that matches it best. (Finding the right match in Venice is quite easy.)
As much as I can, I avoid framing people or elements that may take my mind off the thing that catches my real interest–the colors of the mask, the eyes of the one who wears it, his movements, etc. Above all, I try to catch the sensation of asexuality that lots of masqueraders transmit.
Being unable to tell a woman from a man is the mystique that attracts me most and that I truly enjoy capturing.
The question of whether it is a male gaze behind a female mask or vice-versa creates an aura of mystery that seems to envelop the whole city. The town becomes a wide stage where each actor and spectator is the carnival. Everybody tries to be somebody else by wearing a mask.
He or she assumes a new identity for me to explore that goes beyond the mask and the real self of the wearer. I must seek a third identity–the one belonging to me.
European motorcyclists have one favorite destination–Nord Kapp in Norway. However, a photographer’s ideal snapshot subject has to be the Venetian Carnival.
You don’t need any serious photographic equipment–just a wide-angle lens for the environments and a medium telephoto lens for the portraits. It would be better if the pictures are very bright–2.8 – 3.5 aperture.
You will want to use a light tripod and a flash in the evening light when the colors of the sunset inflame the magic and heated atmosphere.
Don’t forget that cars and bus’es are not allowed in town. You can move around Venice on foot or by ferryboat. That’s why packing heavy inessential equipment may make you uncomfortable and tired by early afternoon. A polishing kit is indispensable to remove moist spots from your camera, lens and equipment.
After all, the Venice carnival takes place in February or March when the climate is often damp. During those months you may also run the risk of the water rising to flood levels. As a photographic subject, water is a great opportunity; however, extra moisture can turn out to be a problem for cameras.
Make sure to bring rubber boots with you, since you may find yourself walking in five to ten centimeters of water. (You can also purchase boots on the spot.)
You won’t need extraordinary equipment to enjoy an event that has been inflaming both the fantasy of the ones who live it and the imagination of the ones who dream of it for nine centuries running.
Who would you be behind the mask?
by Piero Leonardi
Article: © 2011 Piero Leonardi. All right reserved.
All photos: © 2008 Piero Leonardi. All right reserved.