My Hunny arrived in Milan last week and whisked us away to Venice for three nights over his birthday weekend.  This turned out to be a very special treat because it was the last weekend of Carnevale.  Carnevale is the pre-Lent celebration (very specific in the Italian calendar due to the prolific nature of Catholicism) where everyone is encouraged to stay out late, eat too much and enjoy being alive before fasting and reflection commences during Lent in the way that Catholics do best.

We experienced a special layer to our visit in the form of Alessandro Sapone.  Alessandro is one of the official mask paparazzi who has photographed and followed Carnevale for more than 18 years.  He also happens to be the boyfriend of my Italian friend Elena.  Alessandro is wholly committed to mask photography and complies with the unique underground culture of greeting and photographing ‘the real masks’ each year.  Literally he has distraction techniques to draw tourists away from the official masks and he bows and kisses the hands of the masks he respects and wishes to photograph.  No money changes hands on either side (I asked), it’s the love of constructing a costume and applying the makeup and mask or the passion for photography with natural light in the streets that creates this whole world of cult fame among the best masks in the world who descend on Venice annually to be photographed.  Alessandro took us to their secret meeting points, the monastery where they are permitted to enter and to the photographers’ lunch hide-out where the wifi password is stuck under the napkin dispensers on the tables for safe-keeping from tourists!

Much as I thoroughly enjoyed this unique insight into Venetian Carnevale culture, I was left wondering what will happen to Venice in the very near future.  It’s popularity as a tourist destination has converted it into a kind of city-sized theme park, packed with people in constant traffic flow over its canals and cobbled walkways.  It’s impossible to stop and browse in shops because you get carried with the throng to wherever they release you (usually in a welcome piazza).  Your sense of personal space disappears within the first hour of setting foot off the train and the food is over-priced, plastic tourist-fair…that is unless you have Alessandro with you.

There are less than 50 000 native Venetians left living in Venice.  That’s less than after WW2. They are implementing a limitation soon on the annual number of visitors per year just to manage the consumerism and environmental impact that tourists have on the city.  It might have been the last time I will visit Venice.

What I liked the most about Venetian Carnevale however was the story of how it began (thanks again Alessandro).  In yesteryear of dark ages ago the ruler of Venice established a victory celebration that all levels of Venetian society could partake in.  Rich and poor Venetians naturally never mixed in these times.  The masks were established to hide the identity of the Venetians from each other so that for a few nights a year, all Venetians could mix and speak to each other on an equal footing.  The very first form of an equal rights policy is Carnevale!