The beginning was less than auspicious: refugees from the Roman cities of Padua, Aquileia and Treviso, beset by the latest wave of Germanic invaders, fled to the marshes at the head of the Adriatic, where they pounded tree trunks into the soft sand and mud to make a new island home. By the 12th century, the outpost in the lagoon encompassed many islands connected by bridges over its canals. Thanks to its navy and trading fleet, it had also grown into a wealthy, powerful city-state – Venice.
The next few centuries saw Venice expand into a maritime empire. Following the sack of Constantinople (1204), the Venetians seized the Byzantine possessions of Corfu and Crete, as well as the islands of the Aegean archipelago. The defeat of archrival Genoa at Chioggia (1381) made Venice the dominant sea power in the eastern Mediterranean, though it wouldn’t reach the height of its power until the next century, when it conquered Cyprus (1489).
Sadly, nobody stays on top forever. The discovery of the Americas shifted trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic while advances in navigation opened new sea routes to Asia. As Venetian commercial importance declined, so did its military might, thanks to long-running wars with the other European powers and the Ottoman Turks. By the early 18th century, its empire gone, the once-mighty Venice was relegated, politically, to a beautiful backwater.
But La Serenissima still had her charms. As Venice retreated from the world, she turned her gaze inward: the city became a watchword for refinement and sophistication, especially in painting, literature and music. Venice became a center for opera in the 18th century, and boasted no less than seven major theatres. Composer Antonio Vivaldi (The Four Seasons) was employed as impresario at the Teatro Sant’Angelo, and staged several of his operas there, while the sumptuous Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo (known today as the Teatro Malibran) saw the premieres of operas by Scarlatti and Handel. The playwright Carlo Goldoni, who served as literary director of the Grisostomo, partnered with composer Baldassare Galuppi and developed a new form, opera buffa, which married the realities of middle-class life with the conventions of the Commedia dell’arte.
The fine arts also flourished during this period. Foremost among the decorative painters of the time was Giambatista Tiepolo, whose murals and paintings adorn many buildings in Venice, including the Chiesa della Pieta and Ca’ Rezzonico. His contemporary, Canaletto, turned his talents toward a subject much closer to hand – the Venetian cityscape, especially scenes of the Grand Canal and St. Mark’s Square. Surprisingly, few of Canaletto’s paintings remain in Venice: they became the souvenir of choice for young Englishmen on the Grand Tour, a polite memento of weeks spent, quite possibly, in the pursuit of more worldly pleasures. For as famous as Venice was for its style and sophistication, it was equally famous as a place of hedonistic excess, and tourists flocked to it.
Without question, the biggest attraction was Carnival, a months-long period of frivolity and abandon, with state-sanctioned gambling, secret trysts, and sumptuous balls. Carnival originated in 1162 as a celebration of the Venetians’ overthrow of the Patriarch of Aquileia, their Byzantine overlord. Festivities were largely symbolic, and culminated with the “trial” and beheading of a bull and 12 pigs, representing the Patriarch and his deacons. Carnival changed through the centuries, shedding its political symbolism; by the 18th century, it had become a public spectacle stage-managed by impresarios. The general public was treated to performances of small circus-like troupes of acrobats and tumblers, as well as animal acts, puppet shows and bull baiting in the city‘s campi. The elite classes attended festini in private palazzi, or met in informal hideaways called casini, where they could socialize, indulge in a secret romance or gamble.
Officially, Carnival lasted from December 26 until the beginning of Lent, a period when masked and costumed revelers thronged the streets. The wearing of masks, however, began with the start of the opera season on the first Monday of October, and resumed in the post-Lenten period for two weeks after the Feast of the Ascension in May. Masks had long been a part of Venetian life, a means of enabling interaction between different classes in a rigidly hierarchical society. Masks allowed for personal and business dealings to go unremarked; they also allowed the sbirri (State Inquisitors) to question citizens anonymously, and allowed citizens to answer without fear of retribution.
The mask of choice for the upper classes and travelers was the bauta, a white mask usually worn with a black tri-corn hat, a black hood and a cape. Women preferred the traditional moretta, a black velvet mask invented in France. A simple round black mask that covered the face, the moretta was held in place by gripping a button attached to the inside of the mask with the teeth. A third type of mask, the volto (face), was worn by the common people. Unlike the moretta, the volto depicted all the features of the face, including the mouth.
But anonymity could lead to taking liberties, particularly in a city where everyone wore a mask: aristocrats masked to enter brothels; young male prostitutes masked as women so as not to be arrested by the sbirri; high-born ladies masked to wander the seamier parts of town; and priests and nuns masked to partake of the worldly pleasures denied them by their vows. This last was not quite as scandalous as it seems, since the older aristocratic families, intent on preserving their wealth through a single male heir, frequently shipped unmarried daughters off to convents. Given the social connections and educational attainments of so many of the inmates, convents became places for intellectual gatherings and the occasional tryst: hence the need for masks upon entering. As far back as the 14th century, attempts had been made to forbid the use of masks when visiting a convent – yet another restriction that the Venetians casually shrugged off.
They also shrugged off restrictions on prostitution, which had flourished in Venice for centuries: the state even set fees, which were posted in brothels. In the 15th century, the city fathers – alarmed by a rise in homosexuality – decided that prostitution was the lesser of two evils. In hopes of reviving Venetian “manhood,” streetwalkers were ordered to publicly bare their breasts and spread their legs on the infamous “Ponte delle Tette.” The area just beyond it, the Rio Tera delle Carampane, became the center of the red light district. (To this day, “carampane” translates as “whore.”) There was also a second class of prostitute, the courtesan. These women, from the middle and upper classes, were educated and more refined. Skilled in the arts and at social discourse, many were able to amass great wealth thanks to a series of generous benefactors.
Many of Venice’s exotic charms could be sampled in one place – the Ridotto, or casino. As with prostitution, the state recognized that it was pointless to battle human nature, and granted Marco Dandolo permission to operate a public casino (the Ridotto) in 1638. His palazzo in San Moise (today part of the Hotel Monaco) became the point of intersection for many different groups, from nobles and travelers to adventurers and swindlers. And, since the Ridotto was only allowed to operate during Carnival, all the patrons who gathered to gamble, develop social and political contacts, and enjoy the company of courtesans, were masked.
Perhaps the best known of the Ridotto’s denizens was a young Venetian adventurer named Giacomo Casanova. Today Casanova is best-known for his memoir, “Story of My Life,” which details his love affairs, duels, journeys, arrests and escapes, but the real man was far more accomplished and complex: he wrote science fiction and mathematical treatises, translated The Iliad into the Venetian dialect, and opted to write his own memoirs in French, the international language of the time. An inveterate gambler as well as a con man, soldier, fugitive, poet and acquaintance of luminaries like Voltaire, Ben Franklin and Catherine the Great, he ended his career as a librarian for Count Joseph Waldstein at Castle Dux, in the remote Bavarian hinterlands.
Of course, at the time of his birth there was nothing to suggest that the infant Casanova would make any sort of name for himself. Born in the Calle Malipiero to impoverished actors, the young Casanova originally studied for a career in the church. Life took a turn for the better when, at age 21, he saved the life of Don Matteo Bragadin, a wealthy Venetian senator. In gratitude, Bragadin showered the young man with money, enabling him to give full rein to his appetite for fine clothes, gambling, and beautiful women. He even had the run of Bragadin’s palazzo, and used the mezzanine level for trysts with various conquests. It all came crashing to an end in 1755, when the sbirri arrested Casanova on charges ranging from Freemasonry to card sharping, and imprisoned him in the attic piombi of the Doge’s Palace. After a miserable 15 months, he and a fellow prisoner managed to escape through the roof.
Casanova spent the next 18 years as a fugitive, moving from one European nation to the next. In Paris, he set up a national lottery system, only to fritter away the profits in the gaming houses of London and the brothels of Rome. Further travels took him through Poland, Prussia, Switzerland and Russia until he was finally able to convince the Inquisition to grant him a pardon. Casanova returned to Venice in 1774, but within a few years he ran afoul of some powerful political figures and was once more forced to flee the city of his birth. He drifted through Europe until 1785, when he found work with Count Waldstein in Bohemia, where he died in 1798.
By then, the Venice of Casanova’s youth was already a thing of the past. The Teatro San Benedetto, the city’s most prestigious opera house for 40 years, burned to the ground in 1774: it would rise again in 1792 as La Fenice. Also in 1774, the Council closed the Ridotto, though gambling certainly continued in the private casini. Efforts were also made to restrict prostitution: courtesans were forbidden to promenade in St. Mark’s Square, to attend plays or casinos without a mask, to live on or travel on the Grand Canal in canopied gondolas, and to make a public display of their wealth. The Republic itself met its end one year prior to Casanova’s death, when it fell to Napoleon’s troops in 1797.