There are two main types of shop in Venice. One sells glass, the other masks. The latter comprise both straight copies of traditional forms and less straightforward souvenirs of the elaborate masks worn at Carnival. The traditional masks were in use at least as early as the 15th Century and some of them were originally part of the costume of commedia dell’arte characters.
It is the souvenirs that come to monopolise one’s attention. Where the traditional mask copies retain a degree of medieval mystery and grotesqueness, the souvenirs are a dramatic, not to say melodramatic, departure from anything that was ever worn at Carnival. Some are palm-sized, cast in solid plaster and made to be hung on the wall; others are in light plastic, papier maché or wood and can be fixed to the head.
Encrusted with glitter, costume jewels, lurid metallic paints, sequins and satins, the masks leer emptily from one shop in three, ancient faces obscured by a creeping, twinkling, radioactive mould. I have no doubt that in February, at Carnival time, they fly from the shelves to the streets where they may mingle with their older, more ‘authentic’ cousins. In this context the masks are masking not the tourist revellers but the function of Carnival itself. There was rather more to Carnival than just ‘being there’. It’s possible that those indigenous Venetians who wish to celebrate Carnival with grave abandon may welcome the opportunity to identify instantly the rubbernecking visitors and behave accordingly. The glitter masks then immediately lose their function as disguise and become badges that identify the wearer unequivocally.
Oddly, the manic tourism and the commodities produced to feed it serve to heighten the ever so slightly tedious (because commodified) ‘mystery of Venice’. The ubiquitous masks drive home the fact that you’re not getting the Venice behind Venice – you’re getting a hystericised Venice in front of Venice behind which may reside the true Venice. So elusive is this final quantity that it may be wiser to forego one’s first visit to the city – it may be only on the second visit that one is sufficiently deterred by the demented white noise of glittermasked Venice to put some work into getting off the beaten track, getting lost and, maybe, finding the mystery thing that everyone bangs on about.
It would be entertaining to think that somehow the Venetians endorse the dementia because it diverts the tourists and prevents them from contaminating the mystery. It’s more likely that they need a quick euro in a sinking city that has only its beauty to offer. The agitated intensity of the glitter masks and the stylistic gap between them and their medieval forebears suggests that both the natives and the visitors are experiencing an impatience with the past. By plumping for the gaudy the visitors have voted against the past as a place where people were different and settled for one where they’re dancers on an international TV light entertainment. The advantage of such a past is that it doesn’t just sort of sit there getting more and more out of date, it is constantly unfolding, with the natives’ support, into a relevant future.

Bunfight at Doge City

The streets are rammed. Passage through the alleys is gruelling – so many tourists are gazing into shop windows that the space left for getting through amounts to just a third of the alley’s width. Down in St Mark’s Square only vertical gazing is possible – the panoramic options are blocked out by thick clusters of camera-wielding snappers. Tour guides are present in their dozens, each marshalling groups of twenty or thirty followers. To combat the incessant hubbub the guides speak into microphones attached to small P.A. systems that they carry round their necks. There is little individual movement, people shuffle in packs from place to legendary place. It’s the last week in May. The season hasn’t started yet.
So proud is Venice of its unique heritage provision that even building works, such as those currently being extensively carried out on the giant Biblioteca Marciana – the Library of St Mark’s – have been enhanced in order to deliver a seamless viewing experience. In the case of the Biblioteca the local council, or whoever ‘manages’ these operations, has suspended from the top of one side of the building a samesize photorealistic backcloth depicting the pillars and masonry you would have seen had they not been obscured by scaffolding and the backcloth itself. Not only that, it has placed a rolexvenice.jpg gigantic and colourful advertisement for Rolex golden watches in the centre of the cloth, as if the building works at the Biblioteca Marciana were obscuring not only elegant colonnades but a portal to a marvellous chronometer opportunity featuring uniformed men in a technologised futurescape.
A very rudimentary piece of theatrecraft is being essayed here. The Men from the Veneto clearly view the eager hordes as unsophisticated hut-dwelling folk who will welcome bigness and boldness in any context. Having completely taken us in with the realism of the colonnade megaphotos they will now entice us into a domain every bit as magical as the fabled architecture of Venice itself. Rolexworld is presented as continuous with the splendour and sublimity of the highest of the high arts. It is, furthermore, accessed via the olden fabric of the Library. The building works, as sometimes is their wont, have uncovered an unsuspected trove at the heart of an already valued site. For a few weeks only we may gaze into the timeless moonscapes that appear to be the habitat of the timerich Rolex Perpetual Explorer.