“Life is beautiful and Venice couldn’t have given me a bigger gift,” declared Italian paralympian Giusy Versace as she landed, grinning from ear to ear, on the carnival stage earlier today. Versace had been chosen as the “eagle” of this year’s Venice carnival and had just “flown” down from St Mark’s campanile (bell tower) some 100m above the crowds. And although she was then beseiged by a swarm of frenzied photographers and camera crews this isn’t a publicity stunt, but an important part of the last weekend of carnival.
Venice’s Carnival Flights
These days Venice carnival hosts 3 “flights” during the main two weeks of celebrations but their origin dates back to a single event back in the mid-sixteenth century. Among the various events organised by the city, a young Turkish acrobat spectacularly succeeded in tight-rope walking up to the top of the bell tower in St Mark’s Square via a long rope anchored to a boat at the waterside. He had no safety net using only a pole to help him balance, much to the ecstacy of the watching crowds. And on his descent the fearless acrobat paid homage to the Doge of Venice via the balcony of the Palazzo Ducale gaining the admiration of everyone who had watched him. The event was repeated in successive years becoming the highlight of celebrations until it finally ended in tragedy in 1759 when the poor soul plummeted to his death. Subsequent years saw the event banned until, after a long break, the flight resumed replacing the acrobat with a wooden dove.
In today’s modern carnival the dove has morphed into an angel – the winner of the previous year’s beauty contest to find the “most beautiful Maria’ in Venice. The angel flies, or more accurately is lowered gently on a long harness, from the top of the campanile down into St Mark’s Square. And this year’s young beauty was the 2014 winner, 19-year old Marianna Serena from the mainland town of Mestre.
The flight of the eagle
The second is the flight of the eagle. Launched in 2012, following the success of the flight of the angel, the eagle has so far always been an athlete. And today paralympian Giusy Versace joined the ranks of fellow eagles gymnast Fabrizia D’Ottavio (2012), volleyball player Fracesca Piccinini (2013) and iceskater Carolina Kostner (2014).
BTW I’m not entirely sure what the eagle signifies. If my translating was correct the announcer said it represents France, although I’m a little dubious about that, especially as the Venetian Republic was crushed by Napoleon in 1797 so it’s a bit of a touchy subject! So if you know if the eagle has a meaning, please do leave me a comment below as I’m dying to know!
This year a group of trumpeters, drummers and flag bearers from the central Italy city of L’Aquila (meaning the eagle, see what they did there?!) preceded Versace’s descent. The band whipped up the atmosphere with powerful drumming and impressive flag acrobatics nearly taking out the various photographers including me crouched at stage-side! Thankfully though, I’m not blessed in the height department and escaped with just the gentle brush of a flag over the top of my head!
And finally the much-anticipated athlete appeared above the stone parapet of the campanile tower, waving to the thousands packed into St Mark’s below. Giusy Versace, cousin (once removed) to Gianni and Donatella Versace, lost her legs in a car accident in 2005, turning to Paralympic athletics in 2010. Running with carbon fibre prosthetics Versace has had enormous success setting Italian records for the fastest 200m & 100m for T43 athletes in 2013 and 2014 respectively. She also holds a series of 9 Italian titles including both the indoor and outdoor championships at 100m and 200m levels. Most recently Giusy won Ballando con le Stelle (Dancing with the stars), the Italian version of Strictly Come Dancing, becoming the public’s sweetheart.
And today the crowd went wild for the athlete as she climbed onto the platform at the top of the tower. From a distance it was hard to tell if she was nervous or not, but later reports confirmed that she’d joked about her fears and I think a few knees were quaking just watching her!
As she began her slow, graceful descent, her skirts billowing in the wind, Giusy’s favourite song, Celine Dion’s “Because you loved me”, played out across the piazza. And the crowds cheered her on until finally she hit terra firma, or rather the stage, beaming broadly and waving wildy to confirm her success to her safety crew back at the top of the tower.
Watch the video from the local newspaper here.
In her joy Giusy brought us an inspirational message. “The piazza looks marvelous from up there,” she said, “I would have liked to have stayed up longer!” And as her smile lit up the stage of the Great Carnival Theatre in St Mark’s, she continued “Today is a day I will never forget. I know I’m the first person with a disability to be asked to be the eagle and so I want to take this occasion to remind everyone that life is, above all, beautiful and at times we forget to live it. I want to demonstrate that everyone can overcome their limits and, therefore, we need to live our lives well and be happy.”
The press then descended on the little eagle and last week’s angel Marianna Serena, crowding round them taking photographs for a good 10-15 minutes. And as the cameramen closed in I overheard Giusy turn to her companion saying that she’d enjoyed the flight so much she wanted to cry with joy! You cry all you want Giusy, the flight of the eagle takes guts!
And so opened today’s party in St Mark’s. The flight of the eagle was followed later by the semi-finals and final of the most beautiful carnival costume but you’ll have to wait for those photos as I have over 2028 to go through!! (I may have gone a little trigger happy!) In the meantime, the fireworks are blazing over the Arsenale tonight as Venice’s streets fill with party-goers off to the various balls around town. If you’ve not joined the party yet you’ve just got a day before the final flight of the series of three, the flight of the lion, which in fact is the raising of the Venetian lion flag to the top of the tower and signals the end of carnival. And then the 40 long days of Lent descend so if you haven’t already, get those masks made, those costumes donned and those doughnuts downed!!! A domani, till tomorrow!
Useful information – updated for 2018!!
Carnevale 2018 in Venice runs from Saturday 27th January to Tuesday 13th February 2015. (Dates will differ from year to year depending on when Lent and Easter fall so always check calendars before you plan travel.)
The official website is: http://www.carnevale.venezia.it/en
Venice Carnival 2018: Program of the main events
The main dates to look out for are –
Saturday 27th January 2018 – 6pm Opening of the Carnival with a water show along the Rio of Cannaregio and an encore at 8pm
Sunday 28th January 2018 – 11am Boat procession along the Grand Canal from Punta della Dogana to the Rio di Cannaregio. Organised by the Associazioni Remiere di Voga alla Veneta in partnership with Associazione Esercenti Pubblici Esercizi (AEPE) and Coordinamento Associazioni Remiere di Voga alla Veneta.
Saturday 3rd February 2018 – Carnival Parade of Marie to St Mark’s Square
Sunday 4th February 2018 – 12pm Flight of the Angel in St Mark’s Square
Thursday 8th February 2018 – Ballad of the Masks with the beheading of the bull, St Mark’s Square
Tuesday 13th February 2018 – 5pm Flight of the Lion, proclamation of the Mary of Carnival.
In addition, the carnival program includes the “Most beautiful mask competition” and touring shows in St Mark’s Square during the day and musical events at the Arsenale every night from Saturday 7th to Tuesday 17th February.