by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Venice Carnival and Goldoni

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 12 February 1993
Nino Barbieri
Statue of Goldoni by Antonio dal Zotto, 1883,
in Campo San Bartolomeo, Venice



Capricious, extravagant frivolity became Venice's hallmark during the 18th century - 'There's nothing in the world worse than being bored,' as one Venetian lady of leisure remarked. 'I'd rather be miserable than bored' - and the Carnival season went on for six months of the year.

Carlo Goldoni, the native-born dramatist and Muse to this pleasure-addicted society, died 200 years ago this month and his Venice is the theme of this year's Carnival, which runs till 23 February.

Goldoni was almost appallingly prolific, producing well over 100 comedies and as many other dramatic works. In the autumn and winter of 1749-50 he wrote sixteen full-length plays - unsurprisingly, suffering a mild nervous-breakdown as a result.

Until then Italian non-musical drama was locked into the medieval traditions of Commedia dell'Arte, with stock characters and semi-improvised speech. Goldoni more or less invented naturalistic soap opera overnight, putting the audience itself on the stage - foibles, ambitions, pretensions, absurdities and all. His realism extended to language - many of his best plays being in Venetian dialect rather than Italian - and Venetians flocked to spend an evening enjoying the gripping and endlessly entertaining spectacle of their own everyday lives.

Venice's exaggeratedly-long Carnival was inseparably bound up with the theater season, which used to last from the beginning of October to the beginning of Lent. During this time the government allowed the wearing of masks in public, and indeed insisted that the upper classes wore them when attending the theater - regularly, and ineffectually, threatening to punish those who appeared unmasked, especially noble women. Day or night, half the rest of the population went out masked - even to go round the corner to buy a bag of beans.

Whilst Goldoni was busy selling audiences realism in the theater, fancy dress on the streets became ever more elaborate, with locals and visitors dressed as gods, satyrs, Turks, Red Indians, English Tars, quack doctors, ranting lawyers and even archetypal murderers and syphilitics.

The 18th-century Venetian Republic promoted Carnival with the energy and determination of a modern tourist board - in order to woo foreigners to spend time and money in Venice during the winter - attracting, in a good year, 30,000 visitors to a city with a population of around 140,000.

The resurgence of Venice's Carnival occurred in 1979, on the fishing island of Burano. The result of a kind of spontaneous combustion, the festivities spread in the following year to Venice itself, and there are many happy memories of the unpredictable early years, before the municipality increasingly took over the show, leaving many Venetians feeling like bit-part actors.

The Gulf War, two years ago, pretty well did for the event; the municipality cancelled its frankly yawn-inducing plans for illuminated water-jets (as though Venice was in the middle of the desert), lasers and holographs, concerts by Dionne Warwick and Juliette Greco (both, it turned out, otherwise engaged), and announced instead an official 'peace rally' from which the Venetians stayed away in droves.

At the same time, in a bizzare twist to the historic masks issue, on the authority of a long-forgotten law banning masks that Mussolini had passed in 1931, it was declared that costumes were to be allowed but masks forbidden, as an anti-terrorist precaution. This, according to the Venetian Hoteliers Association, was the last straw for would-be revelers, many of whom promptly cancelled their reservations.

Last year, general depression and lack of public funds gave the Carnival a whole new lease of life: the megalomaniac schemes dear to the Fun Functionaries were unrealizable, and while administrators stood round wringing their hands, the people took to the streets and Venice regained a genuinely festive air. Multiple smaller-scale stage and musical shows, some Venetian and some from out of town, blossomed all over the city - in theaters, churches, squares, under colonnades and in cafes - children in fancy dress were everywhere, and often hilariously costumed adult apparitions appeared on boats, in bars and restaurants, or loomed out of the mist at night.

With still-modest municipal funds and some helpful (and, as yet, not too oppressive commercial sponsorship of various events), this accidentally-arrived at formula is being repeated this year. In addition, there will be plenty of 18th-century music and, inevitably, dozens of productions of Goldoni - including what promises to be an ebullient musical version of Il Campiello (The Little Square), scored and played by Venice's irrepressible Venetian-dialect reggae band, Pitura Freska.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023