Masked Ambition

Letter From Venice

It is now Carnival.  If you look at Venetian painting, where it is a recurrent theme, very occasionally among the profusion of masks and costumes worn by the revelers you will spot the fool’s cap, the jester’s conical hat decorated with bells or pom-poms.  Nowadays, the hat, sold on every street corner in a variety of colors and shapes throughout the winter, is without doubt the most conspicuous ornament of the day tourist, rather like the baseball cap in summertime.  Foolishness is now comme il faut even among the working classes, and the louts descending on Venice in their hundreds of thousands are nothing if not conformist.  On another social level, the court jester of today masquerades in Armani and pays full menu price with an American Express card for his plate of reheated tortellini at Harry’s Bar.

At the Teatro Goldoni the other night, it occurred to me that the old classical commedia dell’ arte, which the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni appropriated, refined, and eventually supplanted, is no more a caricature of life than Monty Python.  This makes me wonder whether one need not to have lived in Labourist Britain to appreciate that the Dead Parrot and the Ministry of Silly Walks are less lighthearted comic routines than vivid fragments of a comprehensive social puzzle that, were it ever fully assembled, would not look out of place in the work of a modern...

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