...invites you to take an imaginary stroll through the heart of Venice on the last night of the Carnivale....
Imagine the scene if you will - La Piazza di San Marco, swathed in plumes of gossamer like mist on a dark February night. It’s Shrove Tuesday, night of the last excess before the Christian season of lent.
The Canale Grande is illuminated from end to end. Candles flicker on the window sills of the elegant Palazzi that overlook the water and magnificent antique chandeliers twinkle within. Bright medieval style torches cast their reflections onto the water, where they dance, unhindered by the swell, like jewelled diva’s lighting the way of a procession of vaporetti bound for the central square. Each and everyone teeming to the brim with elaborately costumed and mysteriously masked revellers.
You are here too, jostling for position amongst the exotic throng. It is not the you that you normally are though, the everyday persona you present to the world. No, this part has taken a back seat. Have no doubt, you will be reunited with Ms or Mr Everyday soon enough – yet for now, you are embarking upon something infinitely more exhilarating – an encounter with ritual, a dreamlike journey into otherworldly realms and a meeting with the powerful archetypes that inhabit them.
Hairs bristle and stand on end as this delicious realisation ripples to the surface of your awareness. Suddenly you glimpse your reflection in the water. Distant music comes to claim you, familiar yet remote, filtering through the network of narrow streets and canals, weaving it’s potent spell, pulling you deeper and deeper into the approaching mystery. Yet who ever can it be – this enigmatic masked companion staring back at you so intently, completely unabashed and totally fascinated by what is seen?
The wearing of masks has roots in many cultures. In Greek theatre they were employed to depersonalise the actors, bringing the wearers and their audiences into closer contact with the archetypes depicted. In shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism it is believed that masks allow the individual to go beyond the bounds of ego, transcending the everyday self to allow the expression of deep unconscious content. Seen in this kind of way, masks function to reveal, rather than merely to conceal as is more commonly supposed.
But let us return now to our own Venetian imaginings...like Alice, peering though her Looking Glass, you are more than a little perplexed. Your mind whirrs a little, trying at first to make sense – maybe this, maybe that, the possibilities are endless yet before you have chance to ponder, let alone decide, the emboldened image is swept away on the tide, fragmenting into the flicker of the dancing lights, before dissolving and disappearing into the shadowy mists.
Che peccato - ma non importa - as the Italians say. What a pity but it’s not important - for it is ever the way of the archetype to slip from our awareness – and yet the mystery is not diminished but rather increased because it. They defy our intellects, spurn all our rational attempts to pin them down and yet still we are drawn, like moths to a flame, full of daring and childlike innocence – and this, dear friends – is the only way to arrive – for the suspension of our disbelief is not an optional but prerequisite of carnival enchantment.
Presently your vaporetto pulls in along the bank. You disembark and make your way through the crowd to the famous piazza, now utterly devoid of any sense of normality, which is quite something given the unparalleled, magnificence and fabulous excess of its architecture.The familiar, towering Campanile, the intricately crafted baroque facades of the floodlit Palazzo Ducale and the sumptuously gold inlaid domes of the Basilica di San Marco appear more surreal than ever.
‘Opium couldn’t build such a place,’ wrote Dickens,
‘and enchantment couldn’t shadow it forth in vision!’
The air hums with palpable expectation. Jugglers, fire-eaters, musicians, acrobats and mime artists play to the exotic, costumed throng. There are Jesters in traditional Punchinella masks, golden suns and luminous silver moons, elegant Venetian ladies of yesteryear in their exquisitely beaded half-masks and Pan, the great choreographer of the gods, whose dances created order out of chaos and wove the world into being.
This final gathering in San Marco is the culmination of the carnival, which has lasted two full weeks. It is a time of celebration, an uninhibited indulgence before the inhabitants of the Christian world traditionally begin the long season of fasting and purification that precedes the death and resurrection of Christ – the last stretch of winter, as it were, before the rebirth of spring.
There will be dancing, curtesy of a Viennese orchestra. Everyone in character is invited to join in. Waving his baton, the conductor signals the commencement of the dance – the orchestra strikes up and you and the rest of the masked revellers - step into position.
Through the mist your partner approaches, bowing flirtatiously. He is swathed in a long, black-hooded cloak and wears a three-cornered hat and awesome white mask featuring an outrageously elongated nose.
He is - il Dottore - the infamous plague doctor from the period of the Black Death in which the population of Venice was seriously laid low. The rich symbolism that surrounds him however is broader and deeper than this, for he embodies the timeless archetype of The Healer. He is the one who does not turn away in the face of suffering, who walks amongst the sick offering comfort and solace, tending the wounds and easing the pains and sorrows of his charges.
You acknowledge his approach, hold out your hand – and are swiftly drawn into his embrace!
The music swells and the crowd is propelled into motion. You begin tentatively. You are shy, unsure of your steps. Why wouldn’t you be? You are crossing a threshold, entering the unkown – allowing the character of your mask to take center stage. Your resistance is significant.
At first you don’t really listen to the music, beset as you are by this chronic inhibition and you shuffle, self-consciously around the square, out of time, out of step, sometimes bumping into other couples and treading on your partner’s toes.
You need to get in time – procure a balance and a rhythm that suits. You are no longer a separate entity and must find some common ground, not only with your partner but with the rest of the crowd as well.
The music supports you and you start to relax and gradually find your feet. Your partner invariably follows suit. He encourages you, first taking the lead – then supporting you to. The dance gathers momentum, waltzing with gay abandon towards its peak – and soon there is neither leading, nor following. Finally you are in step!
The much mis-understood fairy story of Cinderella climaxes at a gathering not unlike this. The Prince discovers his love and dances with her until midnight. The underlying symbolism is that of union, a weaving together of the disparate threads of the self, a marriage of opposites, an unforgettable ecstatic moment in which profanity gives way to sacredness and time dissolves into eternity.
Like whirling dervishes, whose dances carried them to the core of the mystery, you too arrive at the heart of the dance – and fleetingly you are one with your partner – with yourself and with the entire dancing throng.
Brava! Brava! Brava!
Savour it if you can, for the clock ticks onward toward midnight, impervious of such notions and all too soon the Carnival will be over and the delicious spell will have run it’s course.
And so it is – for no sooner has this thought occurred – the music stops – and your mysterious partner releases you – bows wistfully and is gone...and as the midnight bells ring out from the Campanile above, signalling the beginning of Lent – then so do all the masked revellers fade from your imagination too – and you are once more back in the everyday world, returned to your everyday self.
When I attended the Carneval with Pat my husband a few years ago -I remember the incredibly stark contrast between the final night, when we too had danced together in our splendid theatrical costumes, wigs and masks – and the morning after as our everyday selves in San Marco.
All vestiges of the previous night’s revelry had been cleared and swept away. A few solitary tourists sat sipping coffee and reading the papers. Everything on the surface was returned to normality. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what mysterious revellers resided beneath the everyday faces of these sober coffee drinkers.
Who were they last night and who indeed was I?
You may well wish to ask yourselves the same?
What face did you see reflected back at you?
What mask did your imagination create?
My own thoughts returned to the scene in Alice through the Looking Glass - where she is told that she is merely a fragment of the Red King’s dream – and I ponder upon the question - asked many centuries ago by the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu – concerning who is really dreaming who? Was the Red King part of Alice’s dream, as she indignantly maintained – or was Alice part of his?
Anne Maria Clarke
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