Hubert Burda Media

Venice Rising

How did the Il Ballo del Doge become such a legendary event? Costume maker and mastermind ANTONIA SAUTTER talks to Scott Adams about Venice's annual theatrical extravaganza

Venice Rising

Venice, a city steeped in history and mystique, bursts into life during its carnival celebrations each year. In the lead-up to Lent (Feb 13-Mar 30, 2013), thousands of locals and visitors take to the streets where, heavily disguised in lavish period costumes adorned with lace and crystals, they party-hop for 10 hedonistic days.
Sleek, black gondolas glide along the foggy canals offering privileged glimpses of the party-goers to revellers on terra-firma. Those lucky enough to have obtained a ticket for the city's most envied ball, Il Ballo del Doge, disembark and make their way up the weathered, stone steps to enter the water-side 15th-century Palazzo Pisani Moretta. Within the richly decorated interior awaits a world of pure fantasy and escapism created by Antonia Sautter, the costume maker and mastermind behind this theatrical extravaganza.
Although there are nightly balls around town, this year, from January 26 to February 12, Il Ballo del Doge will again be, without doubt, the party par excellence. It has been described by Vanity Fair magazine as “the most sumptuous, refined and exclusive ball in the world”. For many, it is the highlight of 10 days of non-stop partying in Venice.
The Venetians are not novices when it comes to letting their hair down and having a good time. They have been celebrating carnivals since 1162, but the fun and frivolity reached its peak in the 18th century when the notorious lover Casanova, along with other likeminded Italians, used the boisterous festivities for the incognito wooing of beautiful women. Venice saw a sharp decline in carnival celebrations in the early 20th century, and the straight-laced dictator Mussolini banned it completely in 1930. It was not until the early 1980s that the tradition was revived by a small group of Venetians, among them Antonia Sautter.
Her enthusiasm for carnival, costumes and parties led her to create Il Ballo de Doge 20 years ago. “I work year round in my workshop creating the 400-plus costumes which will be worn at the ball,” she explains, while showing off some of her colourful sketches which will be transformed into elaborate costumes for the guests and entertainers. Her designs include massive crinolines and panniers covered with metres of billowing silk and taffeta. Each garment is absolutely unique and decorated strictly by hand with lace, ribbons, embroidery and glass crystals.
Today, due to its high profile, Il Ballo del Doge attracts European, Middle Eastern and Asian nobility, as well as international glitterati.
“Many of the guests commission costumes from me,” reveals Sautter. “That involves meetings to discuss what characters they would like to represent, the choice of fabrics, embellishments and the budget.”
While most personalised costumes will take many thousands of euros and weeks to produce, Sautter remembers one special dress which is perhaps her par de resistance, and may never be equalled for its extravagance. “My most elaborate costume, and one which proved a real challenge to create, was commissioned by an American industrialist's wife. It included over 200 diamonds sewn onto the antique lace bodice,” she confides.
Regular visitors to Sautter's workroom are husband and wife Bruno and Cleo Houghton. They have been coming to Venice for over 15 years to celebrate, what they call “a week of hedonistic delight”. The couple leave their home on New York's Madison Avenue and make their base in the historic Danieli Hotel next to St Mark's Square. “We discovered Il Ballo del Doge four years ago and are now regulars,” explains Cleo, looking dazzling in a massive, electric-blue, 18th-century, French, pompadour creation, complete with a bejewelled white, powdered wig, created exclusively by Sautter.
Bruno is just as enthusiastic as his wife about the ball. “As soon as you step through the doors of the palazzo, it's as if you pass into another dimension,” he says. He cuts a dashing figure in a French-styled, blue, velvet coat, breeches, feathered, tri-cornered hat and sequined mask created by Sautter to compliment his wife's finery. “The palazzo's frescoed ceilings, the thousands of candles and everyone parading in amazing costumes makes it difficult to believe that the 21st -century is just outside,” he enthuses.
To add variety and originality to each year's ball, Sautter weaves her magic around changing themes. “Each Il Ballo de Doge is unique and quite different from the previous years,” she explains. “I always choose a fantasy idea to produce the costumes, music, show and decorations.” In the past, the Palazzo Pisani Moretta has become the scene for spectacle themes as diverse as, Seven Dreams and Seven Sins, Queensessence, Golden Passion and Magic of the Oriental.
For the 2013 edition, Sautter will present a brand new collection of spectacular and unforgettable costumes inspired by the ball's theme: It's All About Amore. “I want to pay tribute to love — the most wonderful of emotions forever present in Venice,” she says. “There are so many sides to love, from the first gentle kiss brought by Eros, to the ardent flames of desire that can cause our whole world to shake.”
Each year Sautter lets her imagination run wild, and it shows in the extravagant detailing in the costumes and wigs. “Last year the theme was based around the greatest queens from history and my ensemble for Cleopatra transformed the wearer into a sparkling, bejewelled and sequined Egyptian goddess,” she explains with obvious pride. “Marie Antoinette's dress, mask and wig were all covered with over one hundred tiny ice-blue lights operated by hidden battery packs.”
She adds: “It's a chance for someone to live a moment of pure magic.”
This year there are already a number of dresses that will blow people's minds with their splendour. “Aphrodite's dress embraces the softness and sensuality of love,” she divulges. “It's a swirling mass of soft silk covered with tiny glass crystals and topped with a glorious headdress.” Men too, will be spoilt for choice, with the option of dressing as Casanova predicted to be a popular one, especially considering the theme and location.
Sautter's passion for dressing up — she always appears at the ball heavily disguised — and making costumes began when she was just a little girl. “I remember looking through picture books with my mother and being mesmerised by the images of Louis XIV, or the marvellous 19th-century, Viennese ball gowns,” she reminisces. “I immediately wanted to make these clothes and wear them too.” She began making her own carnival costumes as soon as she could manage a sewing machine and has never stopped.
As well as being chief costume designer and seamstress, Sautter has a hand in everything else. She personally chooses the menu for the three-course dinner which kicks off the night, and makes sure it includes authentic Venetian favourites such as clams, and black risotto with squid ink. “A highlight of the evening is the fully-choreographed show with 40 dancers, singers and acrobats,” she enthusiastically explains. “Their costumes need to reflect the ball's theme, but be styled so that they can dance and move.”
When Sautter began producing this event she knew that she needed an exceptional setting, and was overjoyed when the Palazzo Pisani Maretta on the Grand Canal became available. For one night, the building is transformed into a magical playground for the 400 ticket-holders. The interior of this 18th-century frescoed palazzo is illuminated by thousands of candles providing an ethereal atmosphere for the costumed guests, who travel from as far away as Japan, China and Australia to take part.
Those who can't get a ticket to this year's Il Ballo del Doge will be pleased to hear that there are other balls almost every night around Venice. Due to popular demand, Sautter has decided to host The Best of Il Ballo del Doge, on Feb 2. “We always have to turn so many people away,” laments Sautter. “I realised I needed to have a second ball.” The Best of Il Ballo del Doge will showcase the most impressive themes of the past 19 years and promises to be a kaleidoscope of sensations.
“Fantasies are delicate and require considerable input from all those involved to make them blossom,” explains Sautter knowingly. She readily puts in the imagination, hard work and time to give Il Ballo del Doge 99 percent of its magic.
“The rest is up to the guests, for when the first rays of sun hit the building the next day, it all vanishes until the following year.”
Il Ballo del Doge takes place on Saturday, Feb 9. Visit ilballodeldoge.com for information.