Before 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.

We 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


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