I can tell you about Casanova, there are some things you must know about
Venice. I need to tell you how she was in the days when my account begins,
for in her gaunt and ghostly decline, as you poverini must see her,
you would not recognise the city of perfervid happiness which spawned both
me, Cecilia Cornaro and Giacomo Casanova, and our story.
Ah, we were a happy city! It was our entire occupation to be happy. We
were mad with happiness, stuffed with it like truffles. When I think of
Venice as she was in 1782, I think of a hundred thousand souls all devoted
to pleasure. Souls like that become insubstantial and faintly luminous.
You see, we were in the phosphorescent stage of decay.
We were a happy city. We were harmless and slightly worn out, loose and
languid in our frisks. We had a child’s sense of fun, latterly a tired
child’s. We were always up to something. There was no viciousness in us,
only the irresponsible trespasses that unfortunately happen when pleasure
runs wild. We loved practical jokes. We were constantly in that exquisite,
perilous state of happiness, the gasping moment before the belly-laugh
jumps out of the belly. We were so happy that we could not bear tragedies
in our theatres. The one sad play they tried was a tremendous flop. In the
comedies, when the villains were despatched, we cheered the corpses:
Bravi i morti! The
deepest of our philosophies was:
A’a matina ‘na meséta,
Al dopo dinar ‘na baséta,
A’a sera ‘na donéta.
In the morning a little mass,
In the afternoon a little gambling,
In the evening a little lady.
gambled like lunatics. In Venice people staked their clothes and walked
home naked. Others staked their wives or daughters. The poorer we were,
the more extravagant we became. We lost the concept of the value of money
because we did not earn it. At Arsenale, where we should have been
building ships to defend ourselves, fountains of wine ran continually. We
forgot how to sleep: we merely fell into stupors. We rose to start our
routs when civilised cities were going to bed. Our masses were like gala
concerts. Our very beggars spoke in poetry.
Yes, we were a happy city. Our morals were indeed somewhat nimble.
And our dress might be called immodest, but this was because we considered
it our duty to show the world every beautiful part of ourselves.
And yes, our pleasures were spiced with a few picturesque depravities.
Actually, we were ripe as old fish! There were lewd acts engraved upon our
snuffboxes and calling cards. Certainly, we took no nonsense from our
priests. Think on this: there were ten times as many courtesans as noble
or respectable bourgeois wives like my mother. But Venice was not a
bordello. It was a haven for women. Their cavalieri serventi –
their gallant lovers – whispered into their pretty ears a light fare of
compliments as continuously as the lagoon utters waves. We wore our hearts
upon our sleeves all year round, for love-affairs were always in season.
Everything was decoration in that happy city. Luxury became us. In Venice
we were mesmerised by our own entrancing vision in the mirror: the mirrors
of the water and the speckled mirrors in our sumptuous bedrooms. In
Venice, every boat wore at the point of its prow a lacy little spume of
foam. As the world closed in upon us, we used our depleted stocks of
gunpowder not to arm ourselves but for fireworks! Fortunately, we were so
beautiful that we frightened our enemies; they did not think
themselves good enough to conquer us. When you hear that it was necessary
to forbid the Venetian laundry women to wear velvet, satin and
black fox fur, you start to understand what kind of city we were then.
Ah, we were a happy city! Venice had become so old that she had fallen
into her second childhood and laughed at everything. We were voluble as
parrots. Our hands conducted simultaneous conversations, eloquent as a
pair of poets. With a flourish, we welcomed in all the self-styled counts
and virgins, the fortune-tellers and the snake-oil salesmen. The very men
who swept the streets sent the dust dancing in graceful arcs, tendering
their brooms like slender ballerinas. We even made joy of acqua alta!
We pirouetted over the passerelle with the water clucking
underneath us like an old governess. We splashed and giggled even as the
sea dragged our chairs and our underwear into the lagoon.
The sea took all our memories and our sins away. She bestowed upon us her
strange mother-of-pearl light which changed every instant and gave us a
taste for lightness and infinite variety in all things. She revived us
with her fresh breath upon our cheeks after we had spent ourselves in our
debauches. She was always behind us or ahead of us, winking at us, showing
us the futility of caution or even planning. For us, the sea was a liquid
stimulant like coffee or hot chocolate. And she was everywhere. You could
not close your bed curtains against her moist, lascivious sighs. You could
not stop up your ears against her saucy whispers.
We had Carnevale six months of the year. In our strange and
beautiful masks we always had a choice of who to be. In our masks, we were
accountable to no one, and we took full advantage of this. In those days
Venice kept eight hundred and fifty mask-makers in business. For our masks
were not merely for Carnevale. They were for the fairy tale of the
everyday, to be worn every night.
We ate foolish foods: meringata and towering confections of spun
sugar. We were so spoiled we thought cherries fell from the trees without
stones. We drank pomegranate sherbet from Araby and herbed raspberry
kvass. Afterwards we dabbed the corners of our greedy mouths with silk
handkerchiefs and threw them away! We ground the detritus of our pleasures
into the paving stones until they made a harlequinade of orange peel,
confetti and pumpkin seeds under our slippered feet. In the crowds, the
women were liberally fondled.
You start to have an idea of us, now perhaps. But don’t even try to
imagine the joy of being born Venetian in the time when Venice was
a happy city. You would not come close to the truth. These things I knew
in my bones about Venice before this story began, even though I myself
lived in a family that tried to hold itself aloof from the happy city,
which tried very hard not to be happy, but, instead, to be good.
Extract from Carnevale
copyright © Michelle Lovric, 2001