A young man dressed as Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie attempted to coax a widow of the first President of Indonesia dressed in an outfit straight out of Dangerous Liaisons onto the dance floor with a bit of impromptu voguing. On the ground floor of the centuries-old Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello, famed for schooling several notables of Italian opera and the classical music scene, guests danced to Bee Gees music in outlandish costumes while sipping Select spritz cocktails glistened like rubies in their hands. It was the waning moments of a three-night marathon of black tie events and opulent costume galas meant to mark both the city’s annual Carnevale and the coming 50th anniversary of Save Venice, the leading private organization dedicated to the preservation of Venice’s heritage.
The revelry came at a time when Save Venice’s actual work couldn’t be more serious. Just months ago the first floor of the conservatory, like most of central Venice, was under a few feet of water after historic high tides. It was the worst flooding ever recorded in the city since the 1966 acqua alta that had spurred the creation of the group in the first place. Another of the city's major event, the Biennale, was forced to temporarily close amidst the chaos.
Carnevale, famed for its masked parties and costumes that ride the line between exquisite and haunting, serves as something of the city’s comeback. While too much tourism, especially from cruise ships, had previously put stress on the city, ironically, news of the flood and general anxiety about Coronavirus has put strain on the city’s economy as streets remained almost empty throughout the winter. Local press reports that while hotels are usually booked solid this time of year, they’re only at about 70 percent occupancy this year. As Italian Vogue editor Emanuele Farneti, who has turned the magazine’s latest cover into a plea for donations, put it in his editors letter, “If you love Venice, come to Venice.”
So come Save Venice did. After all, their biannual weekend-long trips in the city serve as a major fund-raiser, and as many guests noted throughout the weekend, this year’s might have been the biggest in recent history.
“Our goal is to leave this city and its artistic treasures as intact as possible for future generations,” said Save Venice chairman Frederick Ilchman. “There’s the point of view that you could move everything to Padua, Verona or Vicenza, but what makes Venice so amazing and so beautiful is that it’s the highest concentration of historic architecture in the world.”
Though, Save Venice’s anniversary was not the only one being celebrated. Sponsor Select Aperitivo was also heralding its own 100th anniversary. While the spritzes that have become the favorite summer drink of half of Manhattan (if not all of Instagram) are known by several names, they’re more appropriately known as Venetian Spritz having been invented in the city. Select, then, is the only major aperitif used in the drink to also originate in the city, and apparently got its name from the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who favored it in his spritzes. The New York Times recently pointed out that its ruby red color made it ideal for Valentines, but guests certainly didn't shy away from in the nights following.
Friday night, with a dress code that called for bright reds and pinks in honor of Valentines Day, was held in the Ex Chiesa di Santa Chiara, also known as the Glass Cathedral. With guests taking in a live demonstration of glass blowing, and holiday appropriate lighting it might have seemed like something out of a fairy tail, but in retrospect might be best described as casual when compared to what was to come.
On Saturday night, guests arrived by boat at the 15th-century Palazzo Pisani Moretta. Attendants dressed as harlequins were there to help them out of their water taxis, and a four-piece female string band greeted them inside. The evening (and most of the guest’s costumes) were masterminded by Antonia Sautter, the city’s famed event planner whose creativity is also behind the Il Ballo del Doge. “She’s done the whole thing. The costumes to the staff, the whole decor, the lighting, the actors, that’s all her,” said Ilchman. “It’s all about transferring you to another world.”
Board member Charles Tolbert came dressed as Jesus Christ (and of course instigated an impromptu re-creation of The Last Supper for the party photographer), while Jenna Mack came as his Virgin Mary. “It took no time at all,” said Tolbert. “We communicate telepathically,” interjected Mack. “For each night we looked at each other, and said exactly what we’re going to do,” added Tolbert. Though the pair revealed that they got crafty to complete the illusion. Mack’s Virgin halo was made out of gold zip ties. Costume hacks were a frequent topic of conversation throughout the weekend (everything from hot glue to clever repurposes of past outfits were employed). Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, came dressed as a quite literal lion king, but didn’t rely on any DIY tricks. “I work in the theater, so I have stuff like this,” he said.
Though the costumes were on display, the group’s cultural fever revealed itself when about three-quarters of my table suddenly excused themselves to catch a better view of an opera singer about to hit the climax of an aria in the main room.
The final night began when Francesca Bortolotto Possati, perhaps the city’s most prominent businesswoman, opened her family’s palazzo to guests. A chandelier, however, had to be removed. In its place an upholstered crescent moon was hung. A violinist sat on top and played throughout the evening with a set that ranged from classic to an orchestral take on David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium.” Perhaps as a change of pace from all of the weekend’s boat travel, the party then paraded through the street’s Conservatory for a performance by Ashley Brown, the Broadway performer who originated the role of Mary Poppins, and mixed Barbra Streisand standards with classic opera. The grand theme of the night was “Clash of the Centuries” after all, explaining the later meeting of Ziggy Stardust and a Marquise on the dance floor.
Despite the grande masks however, guests kept using the word family to describe the American-based group. Many had traveled before both to Venice and several Venetian-related exhibits and events back home throughout America. When board member Juan Prieto won a raffle open to any member that completed a treasure hunt throughout the city in their free time, their were both cheers and playful groans. It was the fifth time he had one. That night he won a pin in the shape of a carnevale mask, but confessed he used a previous trophy, a silver Gondola, to serve nuts at parties. Ilchman started as an intern at the group back in the ‘90s, but eventually worked his way up to chairman (Prieto, meanwhile, worked his way up to best man at Ilchman’s wedding). Schumacher pointed out a couple, a real estate agent and a 9th grade teacher who were attending for the first time (One was dressed as Elton John on the finale night; the other was the Bowie).
Lady Dewi Sukarno, the former Idonesian president’s widow, was also attending for the first time, and while she brought her own large entourage with her from her current home in Japan, she felt welcome. “Everybody tried to do the best of the costume of their own imagination,” she said of her favorite memory. Another board member came to every nighttime event with her dog, Peter. When another asked her to come see the recent redecoration of her New York apartment the next time she was in town, she asked if Peter could come as well.
“We have so many friends that we’ve brought here, they’re not here because it’s some posh event, because these people actually care about scholarship,” said Schumacher. “Where else where would you end up with a version of life in which the intern who was getting his PhD becomes the chairman?”