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 Dickens or Tolstoy.  The pet-shop sales assistant who does not want to sell parrots and dreams instead of roaming the woods as a lumberjack is not so much a whimsical figure of fun as the living and breathing lout of the very sort that now predominates among the not-so-young in the more prosperous nations of the world.  As for the ministry in question—from whose exalted eminence men with names like Wim Kok can now teach 300 million sales assistants manqué to dream strange dreams of liberty, leisure, and golden apples “where below another sky, parrot islands anchored lie”—it has, of course, opened for business in Brussels.

Nothing better illustrates the intense realism of old Italian character comedy—at least in its deservedly famous Venetian refraction—than the absurd harlequinade, which finally concluded in December to thunderous applause from an appreciative audience on both sides of the Grand Canal, that was my search for a new apartment to move to from Palazzo Mocenigo.  Last summer, after a whole year of hopeful intrigue and angry entreaty, I finally crowed victory upon persuading the elderly, deaf, and vague owner of a suitably picturesque palazzo in S. Stae, across the Canal from the Casinò di Venezia, to sign the magical “quattro più quattro,” the rent-stabilized residential lease that permits the tenant to occupy the premises effectively until his demise.  Italian tenancy laws being what they are, only an elderly, deaf, and vague landlord would sign away his ancestral home to a total stranger almost certain to outlive him, and hence the only kind of legal arrangement on offer to foreigners here is the dud, one-year, market-pegged, tourist-accommodation lease that I, and the equally unfortunate Lord Byron before me, had at the Mocenigo.

I crowed prematurely, because when we signed in June, the S. Stae apartment was still occupied by the newly elected mayor of Venice and his recently acquired wife.  As far as I was concerned, this humorless and somewhat lumpy provincial politico was just a sitting tenant and a nuisance.  Actually, he was there to help his ambitious new wife instruct the inhabitants of the city in highly important civic tasks, such as how to hold pigeons at bay without excessive cruelty to their persons, how to round off currency conversions from the laughably kaput Italian lira to the impeccably modern euro, and generally how to become better bootlickers—I mean, citizens—of the European Community.  And while it may well be that Signor Costa had been elected to his high post for a variety of tolerably valid reasons, on the basis of my personal experience I would be disinclined to believe that Signora Costa’s youthful charm, natural simplicity, and disinterested kindness had been among them.

The first strategic decision jointly taken by Venice’s first couple was to terminate their lease at Palazzo Duodo.  A 14th-century Gothic palazzo, “no mod cons”—near the spot where Goldoni was born and round the corner from the churches of S. Giacomo dell’ Orio, with Veronese’s Faith, Hope, and Charity over the sacristy door, and S. Cassiano, with Tintoretto’s Descent Into Hell in the chancel—is most emphatically not a good address for the Modern Man who is an Important Figure with a Possible Future in European Politics, to say nothing of the Man with a Roman Wife who is Hell on Wheels.  In Venetian commedia dell’arte, the self-important and loquacious petit-bourgeois Pantalone hails from the Giudecca.  It made perfect sense, therefore, that Venice’s newest grandee and his missus were to move from S. Stae to a new, exclusive, and conspicuously modern condominium on the island, which was to be completed sometime in the summer.

But come summer, strangely enough for the Modern Man with an Important Wife who had tirelessly campaigned on the promise of rebuilding La Fenice on time and under budget, Pantalone’s condominium was no more ready for occupancy than the charred remains of Italy’s favorite theater: not in July, not in August, not in September.  Whereupon Mrs. Pantalone, though less touched by my homeless family’s plight than by the plight of homeless families elsewhere (in Afghanistan, for instance), took decisive action to avoid the political scandal that would almost certainly have unfolded if our elderly, deaf, and vague landlord had taken the case to the local newspaper.  She handed me the keys to a three-room office her husband was keeping in the same palazzo, with a benediction to the effect that I was welcome to whatever shelter this offered.

Reminiscent of the commedia dell’arte skit “La Casa Stregata,” or “The Jinxed House,” the production of the ensuing comedy calls for a split-level stage.  Pantalone is told by the doctor that he is ill and must take a house in the country for a change of air.  The miserly Pantalone remembers at once that he owns a place in Castello—in Monopoly terms, this is like remembering that you own a tenement in the Bronx—which is rented to Arlecchino.  He throws out the hapless ingenue and, looking forward to his petit-bourgeois lungs devouring all that free Castello air, moves in himself.  Whereupon Arlecchino’s friends come together to persuade Pantalone that the house is haunted, and night after night he is forced to pay the princely sum of four zecchini to the psychologically astute Brighella playing the scary ghost.

On the upper level, Pantalone contemplates the fate of Venice’s pigeons and the future of the euro while Mrs. Pantalone stirs away at the cocktail of his political ambition, one part Mother Teresa to six parts Lady Macbeth.  On the lower level, Arlecchino and friends plot ghostly revenge on the infernal couple.  Pulcinella, the owner of the palazzo, and all the comic zanni run back and forth between the two levels, scrambling on top of one another like the famous Brustolon angels on the vase supports in the grand ballroom of Ca’ Rezzonico, tripping over the furniture and falling over in unimaginably funny ways.

After more than three months of such slapstick, a veritable fool’s cap on more than a year of agonized pantomime that preceded it, imagine my relief when, one dark day in late November, deus finally came out of the macchina da caffè to intervene on the side of the downtrodden.  Over an espresso in Campo S. Luca, a friend of mine, young Hugues L——, told me of a family house of theirs, Palazzo Contarini-Michiel, that was in the process of being vacated by the Greek consul in Venice after some 20 years of neglectful occupation.  And yes, his father would let me have the same “quattro più quattro” that the consul had.

The 15th-century palazzo stands on the Grand Canal next to Ca’ Rezzonico, the very grand house where Robert Browning lived and died, and it is under its roof, needless to say—because this is Italy, where every good commedia dell’arte plot must always have the happy ending conducive to healthy digestion—that I am now writing this proclamation of final and quite irreversible triumph.  When I told Lady Pantalone that I had made other arrangements and was no longer in need of her ambiguous hospitality, the copperplate Roman look on the blank of her ivory-laid face was recompense enough for the eternity I had spent in addressless anguish.  Curtain, applause, polenta for the actors.