Text by Mandi Keighran / Photos Tim E White
The Carnival of Venice (Carnevale di Venezia) is an annual whirlwind of fantasy, masks, elaborate costumes, prosecco and fireworks, a fairytale world in which imagination wraps itself seductively around reality. For two weeks in February, the Queen of the Adriatic is transformed, the end of the festivities marked by the beginning of Lent, 40 days before Easter. Among the myriad masquerade balls that fill the carnival’s programme, there is one that is more exclusive and extravagant than any other – Il Ballo del Doge (literally, The Duke’s Ball).
Now in its 21st year, Il Ballo del Doge is the creation of Venetian costumier and mascherari (maskmaker) Antonia Sautter. Every year since 1994, it has been held in Palazzo Pisani Moretta, a 15th-century Venetian palace located on the Grand Canal whose rooms are decorated by such Baroque artists as Tiepolo. “There are few occasions to live a dream with open eyes,” says Sautter. “Il Ballo del Doge is one of those rare opportunities, and the carnival is a world of extraordinary play.”
It is generally agreed that the Carnival of Venice began in 1162, when Venetians celebrated a victory against the ancient city of Aquileia in Piazza San Marco, the main public square in Venice. By the 13th century, it had become tradition for the citizens of Venice to hold decadent festivities for up to two months, from 26 December to the beginning of Lent. Like many Venetian celebrations, the carnival was an opportunity for participants to don elaborate costumes and masks – Ascension in May and another celebration held from 5 October to Christmas, together with the carnival, meant Venetians spent much of the year clad in evocative disguises.
Il Ballo del Doge is a mysterious world, where, says Sautter, time and space is suspended and guests enter a magical place where anything is possible. “My guests have to leave reality behind,” she says. “Il Ballo del Doge is a magical experience. It is to be, to play, to dream, to act. There are no limits.” Behind the masks and elaborate costumes, the rich, the famous and royalty from around the world can be whoever they want to be – and, in keeping with the mystery that surrounds the event and her role as the perfect host, Sautter is discreet about who may have attended in past years (according to rumour, however, the Sultan of Oman and Vivienne Westwood are regular attendees).
The world Sautter inhabits is like a fairytale and, like any fairytale, her story begins with once upon a time.
“Once upon a time,” she recalls, “when I was a little girl, I would help my mother make the costumes for the carnival for my school friends and me. Through the costumes, I entered many magical worlds – some historical, some fantasy. One year I was Marie Antoinette, and another year I was the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I could learn and enjoy anything. When the carnival arrived, we were the protagonists, acting out our characters in Piazza San Marco. It was pure joy and happiness.”
When Sautter grew up, she refused to leave the fantastical world of costumes and masks behind. In her early twenties, she left a job in foreign sales for a Venetian glass company to open a small shop selling her costume jewellery, hats, masks and costumes – “When something is inside of your heart, it has to come out,” she says, explaining her decision to follow her dream.
Terry Jones, the British comedian of Monty Python fame, might seem an unlikely player in this story of fantasy and intrigue. Yet if it weren’t for Jones and the BBC, Il Ballo del Doge would be nothing more than an unrealised dream. In the early 1990s, Jones visited Sautter’s store while filming a television segment on Venice, and mentioned a project his team was working on – Terry Jones’ Crusades – for which they needed help in organising costumes and sets. Sautter proposed herself for the role – “A completely mad and foolish thing to do,” she says – and created a huge ball scene for the programme, using her friends as extras. The following year the same friends encouraged her to create a similarly elaborate event, and Il Ballo del Doge was born.
The ball is an exclusive experience, and it comes with an exclusive price tag – tickets start at €750 for entrance to the after-dinner party from 11.30pm and go up to Exclusive VIP Entry for €2,000 (which includes a traditional Venetian feast). And then there’s the obligatory dress code of period costume. Renting a costume costs upward of €200 per day, and Sautter’s creations – many of which use over 30m of silks and taffetas, in addition to antique laces, beads and sparkling Swarovski crystals – cost anywhere from €1,000 to €8,000 to buy.
But, each year, 400 guests believe it’s a price worth paying to enter Sautter’s magical world and become someone else for the evening. Or, perhaps, it’s an opportunity to be more themselves – as Oscar Wilde wrote: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Il Ballo del Doge 2014 will take place on 1 March and is themed “The Art of Dreaming”, “Because,” says Sautter, “dreaming is an art.” Three floors of the palace will be transformed into three decadent worlds for the evening: desire (inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), transgression (from Fellini’s Casanova), and obsession (inspired by Kubrick’s Eye’s Wide Shut, for which Sautter created many of the masks). Performers – from opera singers and dancers to burlesque artists and musicians – will inhabit each of these worlds, and Sautter’s atelier of “magical seamstresses” is creating over 100 costumes for the entertainment alone. “I work all year with my team to make this happen – there is a lot of work behind this magic fairytale to make it the perfect dream.”
Also this year, for only the second time in the ball’s history, the Palazzo Pisani Moretta will play host to “The Best of… Il Ballo del Doge” – an opportunity to relive past spectacles from the event. “There have not been any moments in Il Ballo del Doge that have not been of great emotion and passion,” says Sautter.
She recalls a rotating carousel of dancers representing the deadly sins at the 2010 ball, themed “Seven Dreams, Seven Sins”; another year, an enormous clam shell opened to reveal a performer dressed as Botticelli’s Venus; in 2012, she remembers the queens’ forest, in which glittering trees were clothed in the costumes of historical queens, surrounded by voices whispering speeches by the famous monarchs. One of her most enduring memories is of a mysterious masked group holding candelabras aloft, descending the stairs of the palace in chorus. “It’s difficult to explain these things,” says Sautter. “You have to live them. In telling, they lose their magic.”
Living the dream of Il Ballo del Doge may be in the exclusive realm of the rich and famous, but Sautter’s original small store has grown into three boutiques on Frezzeria San Marco. Here, visitors can indulge in a more affordable kind of masquerade fantasy, with handmade masks selling from just €24 (NOK 200) – not much more than the mass-produced masks that are ubiquitous throughout Venice. She also sells handcrafted silk pillows and home accessories, slippers, and period toys, such as puppets. Or for a truly unique experience, visit the atelier, where Sautter’s workshop is situated and where she displays her collection of costumes for hire. “There is a special atmosphere and energy in my atelier,” she says. “I am very happy if I can make people enter into this world.”
And, if Sautter realises her vision, we may all be able to experience the elusive and magical world of Il Ballo del Doge. “I want to make a show of Il Ballo del Doge and take it around the world,” she says. “I know in my mind exactly how it would be in a theatre. You always have to have a dream in your soul, and that is my biggest dream.”