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Venice Revives Ancient Masked Carnival

February 13, 2002

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VENICE, Italy (AP) _ The dinner dance at the Palazzo Pisani Moretta sought to reach back, across the city’s misty lagoons, into the glorious days of the 18th century when Venice threw the best Fat Tuesday _ Martedi Grosso _ bash in Europe.

Masked revelers toasted the last night of Carnival under the Venetian glass chandeliers of one of the Grand Canal’s most opulent palazzos, recalling the city’s anything goes past.

The party, hosted by a private association, was one of dozens around town Tuesday night to offer a last, late winter outburst before Ash Wednesday opens the somber Lenten season.

Feasting on salmon marinated in thyme, risotto with shrimp and artichokes, and white fish with radicchio and tomato, the buffed and bustled guests sought an ambiance from times when the independent maritine province was known as La Serenissima _ the most serene republic.

Men dressed as women in 17th and 18th century silk damask gowns, decolletage powdered, makeup hiding whiskers. There were even women dressed as women, corseted, bewigged.

Most of the few hundred guests were not Italians. The French, in particular, showed up and paid between $260 and $350 for a night at the Pisani Moretta. For many, getting outfitted ran as high as $400.

``It’s something special, because Venetians want to relive the 1700s,″ said guest Silvana Costanzo as she and her husband _ the maritime director for the Veneto region _ sat down for dinner. ``For them, it’s not a mask, it’s a life, a tradition.″

Costanzo’s mask came from a tourist shop around the Piazza San Marco and was modestly emerald green, jeweled and feathered.

An estimated 55,000 revelers jammed the piazza, always the center of Venice carnival festivities and hit their zenith in the 1700s when European nobility were drawn by the promise of an anonymous good time before the season of fasting.

Venice’s masks, many of them inspired by the theatrical characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, provided the perfect disguise.

Revelers could pretend they were Harlequin, the witty prankster who wears bright patchwork outfits, or Pulcinella, the Neapolitan simpleton who always wears white.

Or they could don the plague doctor’s mask, with its long beak-like nose that was filled with herbs to filter out germs; or Venice’s traditional Bautta, a white mask worn with a three-pointed hat and a silk cape that completely disguised the wearer.

``You could transform, do whatever you couldn’t do during the rest of the year,″ said Antonella Masnata, a mask-maker and co-owner of one of Venice’s better-known artisan shops, Ca’Macana.

That was the spirit behind the effort launched in 1979 to resurrect Carnival, which had petered out ever since Napoleon ended Venice’s days as a republic in 1797.

While the effort has been a boon to the merchants of Venice in the otherwise lean tourist season _ gondoliers were charging $70 Tuesday for a 35-minute spin, about twice the normal price _ some say the new Carnival isn’t about Venice anymore.

``Some time ago, it was for Venetians,″ said Masnata. ``Now unfortunately, it’s degenerated. ... Now it’s all about the rich. There’s nothing for the people.″

Masnata, however, said she was breathless the first time she stepped into the Palazzo Pisani Moretta, with its low-hanging chandeliers and silk-lined walls that overlook the Grand Canal.

``If you have the money, maybe it’s worth it,″ she said. ``Once in a lifetime.″

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