Long forgotten and become a shadow of its former self, the Venetian Carnival was revived by Italian officials in the late 1970s. The goal, obviously, was to boost tourism revenue. It was rewarding, massively, to the point that tourism has become a scourge for Venice, as much as a source of income.
Yet it has paid off handsomely in other ways, too. For perhaps better than elsewhere, the Venice Carnival is a reenactment of the glorious day of the Serenissima, the Venetian republic that was ruled by an elective Doge, a true precursor of modern democracy. And amid the crowds of tourists, you still do get a sense of the past glory and splendor of the city-state, now imperiled by so many challenges, including depopulation, rising water levels and unregulated tourism. It is still, arguably, the most beautiful city in the world.
Five years ago, the Carnival organizers instituted the Flight of the Eagle on the last Sunday before the festivities end, mirroring the Flight of the Angel the Sunday before. A model descends along a rope the bell tower of the St. Mark’s Basilica to the Square. It evokes a feat that, according to legend, a Turkish acrobat performed in the era of the Serenissima.
And indeed, the display of beauty and wealth is unabashed. “Vanity is a human condition,” one of the anchors of the Flight of the Eagle said at St. Mark’s Square. “And how would it be possible without a mirror?” A female presenter replied that, indeed, mirrors had been invented in Venice, possibly referring to how they were perfected by Venetian craftsmen in the 17th century. In any case, it is perfectly fitting for a city of, quite literally, specular architecture and beauty. It has been projecting itself in narcissistic reflection in the waters of the lagoon for over a millennium.