During Carnival this year, I hosted an artist friend of mine, Marie Matthews for a couple of weeks at my rented apartment in Venice. Marie and I went down to San Marco almost every morning to photograph the costumes. These costumes are very elaborate, and take their wearers months to make, in most cases. Most of them adhere to the styles of the 18th Century, tho there are some variations (for instance, a man dressed all in silver, portraying a time traveller).
One morning, when all of us – myself, Marie, my wife and our grandson – got up before dawn and went down to San Marco, Jeanne and Marie decided to go off on their own after the sun rose and the costumes drifted away, while I took Connor back to the apartment. They wandered all around, Marie in her costume, Jeanne with our camera, and had several adventures which Jeanne has written about here.
One of the places they explored was the staircase of the Contarini house, which is spiral, like the shell of a snail, which is where it got its name – bovolo. It’s a bit hard to find. You have to turn down a narrow street that takes a blind turn, and then another narrow street which opens out on a small campo with the usual well head in the middle of it. After taking several photos of the building and campo, they began to wander off, but met some of the very costumed figures we had just photographed at San Marco, coming back to their rented apartment to divest themselves and perhaps take a nap. It turned out that they were Americans teaching in Germany, and were very forthcoming. They’d been coming to Carnival in Venice for years, and always rented the apartment in the campo. Marie, a novice at carnival costumes, took the opportunity to ask questions about their costumes, such as, “How do you get the neck drapery to stick around your mask?” “Glue gun.” And, “Where do you get the hoops for your skirt?” “Turkey.”
They followed the costumed figures back to the Bovolo, where Jeanne took more photos, and thus was the idea for a painting formed.
The first thing I did was to make a pastel painting of one of the costumed figures as she unlocked the door to their house and went in. I was enchanted by the view of the stairs behind her, and the look of invitation in her mask, tho she might well have been desiring only to be alone so she could remove the pounds of unwieldy costume. I used a sheet of the paper I made and brought with me from home. This painting is 8.5″x11″.
Then I made some studies of the costumes with pastel on handmade paper, also 8.5″x11″.
These figures were photographed on a nearby street, where they were first encountered, and so I left out the background to focus on the details of their costumes. They were already very familiar, since I had photographed them in San Marco. I don’t need to tell you that I used handmade paper, because you can see by the ragged edges that I made it by hand.
The next step was to get out a full sheet of Fabriano paper – 22″x30″, and start with the graphite drawing. At first I only sketched in the details of the staircase and the house next to it, and concentrated on placing the figures. I had decided to use all the figures that my wife had photographed near the house, instead of sifting thru all the hundreds of photos we had taken of figures at San Marco, and perhaps including people who weren’t staying there. This was of minor importance, as we had formed the plan of giving a print of the final painting to the costumed figures, who had kindly given my wife a card so we could contact them.
However faint the drawing looks on the computer screen, it was dark enough for me to be satisfied with the proportions and placement, and to begin work in color.
I started with pastel pencils, which will take an edge, and put in the details bit by bit.
On a whim, I included a picture of Marie in the upper window, as I had plenty of photos of her in her costume. The pose I used was taken at the top of the Rialto bridge, but that’s the wonderful thing about art – it’s better than reality.
The painting went thru several more stages than I managed to take photos of, but the finished painting is here. When I get home, I suspect I will do a much larger painting, to do justice to the wealth of detail I couldn’t capture with pastel on paper, but we will see about that.
Here are some details of the figures. The objects they are standing near are carved well heads, called pozzo in Italian. They are everywhere in Venice, and it seems the people who own the Bovolo are particularly fond of them, because there is a collection of them in the yard. None of them work, of course, as all the wells in Venice were capped when the city began getting its water piped in from the nearby alps.
Here is my tribute to Marie, without whom I would never have gotten up before dawn to go take pictures.