Dress and Mask: Antonia Sautter
Photographer: Raul Santo Photography
(Note: Originally posted in May 2019)
As I am saying goodbye to Venice again I sit here amazed how the city has changed, yet remained the same over the past decade. Milan was my first taste of Italy as work took me there for a few weeks. My main travel buddy hopped on the trip and created an aggressive itinerary with train excursions to Florence, Venice, and Rome. Everyone proclaimed Florence would be my favorite; however, I soon discovered Venice would win my heart.
We arrived by train in Venice during the December 2008 Christmas holiday season. Lesson #1: Downsize my luggage. "Technically” the hotel was within walking distance, yet we soon discovered with super-sized luggage, bridges, and no navigation system, the hotel might as well been miles away. With that said the second time around I chose the Venice Times Hotel which is steps away from the train station and transportation directly to the airport.
Lesson #2: Venice deserves its reputation for disorienting visitors. I'm a Witness and Victim! We had no dedicated plans during the first visit, therefore, it was enchanting losing our bearings and emerging at a Christmas market! This time around I learned to navigate the public water transportation system (e.g., taking the Number 2 to San Marco and Rialto). The Venice Times Hotel provides guests with a complimentary cellular phone during the stay for navigation, international/local calls, and browsing. Venice gave Google Maps has a run for its money!
Carnevale di Venezia
(Carnival of Venice)
Carnevale di Venezia has always intrigued me and I wanted my first experience to be in the country that is considered the birthplace of the festival. Many of my friends and acquaintances were not aware that Venice had a Carnival. For those in the Americas like myself Carnival times conjures images from Brazil, Caribbean, or New Orleans' Mardi Gras. The reality that Carnevale was birthed as a religious tradition of Roman Catholic/pagan origins, is overshadowed by parties and debauchery.
Carnevale is an Italian word derived from the Latin "carnis" (meaning meat or flesh; ablative: carne) and "vale", the common Latin word for farewell). So, "carnevale" means literally, "Goodbye to meat!" It refers to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the traditional Christian period of 40 days before Easter, commemorating the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert, and which was a period of abstaining from meat and other pleasures of the flesh. So, it was the day to get those last enjoyments in. Though the inspiration for Carnevale is biblically based, various scholars theorize the holiday originated in Italy between the 11th and 12th centuries.
Throughout Europe there are massive celebrations that have occurred for hundreds of years. It is estimated that the Carnevale di Venezia brings in close to three million people during the two week long festival. That is a lot of people getting lost in those Venice streets!
Carnevale di Venezia is good for the entire family. There are daily productions in San Marco Square (Piazza San Marco) suitable for all ages. I recommend grabbing a table at one of the cafes, ordering a Aperol Spritz, and people watching. The elaborate costumes are out of this world. Most are historical or Venetian Masquerade inspired. Many of these revelers stroll the Square indulging anyone who wants to take a picture of them. Note: You will also see superheros, Disney characters, Food costumers. Most kids are in recycled Halloween costumes! (I took the photo below in San Marco Square as I meandered the streets during the day.)
Il Ballo Del Doge
The Magnificent Ephemeral - In Praise Of Dream, Folly and Sin
Due to the expansive history of mask making, it's only fitting Venice is home to the most exquisite masquerade balls in the world. During Carnival one of the grandest and most known is Il Ballo Del Doge. If I had a time machine I would use it just to go back for the decadent fashion and Il Ballo Del Doge allows me to do just that.
Antonia Sautter created Il Ballo Del Doge 25 years ago. Sautter is a world renowned atelier specializing in period costumes. You may have seen her handiwork in the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman movie "Eyes Wide Shut". The strict dress code requires period costumes, which can be rented at Antonia's atelier near San Marco. I chose this option since lugging a 17th century dress and headpiece in carry-on luggage did not seem like a wise choice.
Tips for balls y'all:
There are dozens of masquerade balls with various themes and dress codes. Make the most of your trip and attend more than one. Some of the luxury hotels, such as the Danieli, host their own balls which is great for guests. You can drink and party all night with no commute!
When renting costumes: Send in your measurements and ensure they have adequate inventory for your size; Schedule the fitting at least 1 - 2 days prior to the ball; Confirm charges are all inclusive or if it is a minimum for a category range. Head gear may be addition.
Some ateliers offer services to assist you in your hotel with getting dressed or you can arrange to get prepared in the designer's salon. I chose the former.
SHARING PENALTY AHEAD: Two things that do not go together are unlimited champagne and historical ballgowns. I do not know how women did it back in the day. The line to the ladies room was much longer than usually. One queen gave me the best advice.... Go from the front. I will leave that there.
Look on the internet for inspiration.
Stay at a location very close to the ball and arrange transportation beforehand or at a minimum have enough cash on hand to get a water taxi.
I used Shoot My Travel to hire a photographer and Raul Santos was absolutely amazing. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Throughout Venice you will see inexpensive masks being sold in every shop. Most are plastic, mass produced cheap imports. This time around I learned more about the extensive history of Venetian mask creation. Authentic Venetian masks are cast individually in molds with Papier-mâché then painted and designed by hand.
SUPPORT TRUE ARTISTS BEFORE THEY DISAPPEAR!
These are some of my recommendations on where to shop:
Ca’Mara – This is the most well known shop in Venice. They offer "Paint Your Own mask" that is loads of fun! Note: I was the only one there without kids, yet like me the adults were having a blast. I would also recommend this for a girls trip or a bridal shower activity.
Atelier Marega – If you are looking for over the top, exquisite, blingy, masks this is your shop. In addition, they host a masquerade ball (Casanova) and rent costumes. Unfortunately for me it was on the same night as Il Ballo Del Doge.
Casanova – Watch first hand the artisan creating masks. I saw the exact cask used for the mask I purchased. Note: I was wearing an authentic Venetian mask when I walked in and he noticed this from across the room. Quality recognizes quality. All of the masks can be worn; however, for me these are so well made I am using mine exclusively for decorative purposes.
Where to Eat
Surprisingly I do not recall any memorable meals in Venice during my first visit. In the last decade Venice has built a reputation of having some of the best chefs in Europe.
Quadri - This Michelin starred restaurant has a prime location in a historic, second floor room overlooking San Marco's Square. I read mixed reviews and I believe some are for the first floor cafe of the same name. I went for lunch in order to enjoy some of the Carnival festivities from my window table. The space is beautiful, service was excellent, and the food & drinks delicious.
Osteria Anice Stellato - A foodie friend who once lived in Venice recommended this restaurant. It is off the beaten path in an area where "people still actually live" as she puts it. Definitely worth the trip. This was my first time having their local fish mullet and it was yummy.
Arva - Is located inside the five-star Aman Venice hotel. This is the same hotel where Amal and George Clooney were married. The luxurious decor made me feel as if I had stepped into a palace, yet the live jazz band quickly brought me back to modern times.
Fontego delle Dolcezze San Stae - I could not visit Italy without having gelato! Friend recommend; taste bud approved.
Venice To-Do List
Island Hop - Here are three islands that you can venture to on a public ferry or through an organized group tour.
Murano Glass Factory - Venetian glass has been made for over 1,500 years, and production has been concentrated on the Venetian island of Murano since the 13th century. You can watch demonstrations and shop at various shops on the island.
Burano - This picturesque island is known for its brightly colored fishermen's houses, lace making, and its casual eateries.
Torcello - This tiny island has only 12 residents yet it is home to a 7th century cathedral and other ancient ruins.
Despite one unfortunate incident Venice has not lost its haunting and magical allure. I felt welcomed and there was so much more to learn and experience. I will be back.