It’s Carnival: a parallel universe where flamboyant gorgeous dresses dance through a dream made of music, storytelling, theatre and lavish cuisine comes alive in Venice thanks to Antonia Sautter’s creativity. As adults it’s easy to forget our inner child, but dressing-up is still one of the best ways to find it again.
Let’s confess: Carnival is fun because it allows us to neglect the mask we wear day to day for a better version of us, sometimes the real one. When disguised, it’s easier to be yourself: it’s impossible to judge if you don’t recognise each other’s faces. There is no city that carries this tradition better than Venice, where Carnival was born, and Antonia Sautter is the mind behind one of the most important events of Venetian Carnival.
She is the Queen of "Il Ballo del Doge", a costume-themed extravaganza that each year makes dreams come true with 100 artists involved, 400 guests, 180/200 handmade costumes all designed by her.
"It is not a party, it is not theatre, it is not a concert: it's all these things together and much more" says Antonia, a beautiful woman who's a queen even when not dressed as one, like she traditionally does on the night of Il Ballo del Doge. The word Doge was used in the past for the chiefs of Italian crowned republics: the most important ones were Venice and Genoa. It's a dialectal word that comes from the Latin "dux" (from the Latin verb “ducere", to lead) and it means leader.
She shows me her drawings carefully moving the sheets: "I always make copies of these sketches, I am scared to death to lose them!" she says with a gentle yet firm voice. They are very innovative: you can see she studied the history of Venetian costumes, and still it's something completely new. How does she do that? "I never copy, I don't like it. That is why my costumes draw from Venetian tradition - the shapes, the different era, the colours - but they are not traditional: there is always something mine, something contemporary I add. I think that's what creativity is about: being able to contaminate, to transfigure something else, something new that carries a meaning, that speaks about many things. Tradition is my starting point, but then I take many steps to make my creations unique".
Antonia Sautter, daughter of a Venetian mother and a German father, has always lived in Venice. Since she was a young girl she started to draw her own costumes, attaching pearls and sewing fabrics, helped by a creative and encouraging mother. “She always said to me: ‘Don't ever let anyone tell you that you are not good at doing something. Try first: you might surprise yourself". And so she did: coming from a career in Fashion, even if not employed in the creative field, she breathed the atmosphere everyday and fell in love with this world.
"One day I just thought I wanted to create something for me, on my own, and I opened a small shop where I would display my creations. And there you go: from then on, things started to happen. I believe you make your fortune on your own, you have to create the right circumstances to help your dreams come true" she says with her bright clear eyes glimmering with joy. To prove that, she recounts me that a BBC journalist in search for inspiration came to her shop and asked if she knew someone who could take care of the set for a remake of the IV Crusade, an historical moment that saw the Doge of Venice as protagonist. Of course, she answered that that person was in front of him. Then there was Eyes Wide Shut: behind the worldwide famous scene in the Villa that sees all the protagonists wearing masks there is Antonia Sautter: Kubrick picked her creations to use in the movie.
So Antonia's fantasy was unleashed, and she was ready to stupefy more people: "I love to watch my guests’ faces as they enter Il Ballo del Doge world. I feel incredibly powerful, in that moment, because I feel I created a parallel universe of happiness, of joy, for all my friends."
But how does this dream that starts from a piece of paper and a pencil become true? "I pass my drawings to my team of wonderful tailors. At dawn, first thing I do is go upstairs in my home, where the workshop is (when I don't have insights during the night! That is why I have to have always all my colours, my fabrics, my insets around), and sharing my thoughts and ideas with them. It's they who work on the fabrics”. All of the costumes are handmade, whether they are sewn or assembled (sometimes the materials don't allow us to stitch properly). She explains that the magic is not only in the very day of the event but in the preparation: "sometimes we all stay up until midnight to see a dress completed and we marvel at the result: this is a daily magic."
Antonia also dyes fabrics by hand, follows all the table settings design (each one is unique) and takes care of the scenography and the dinner menu, always paired with the theme of the night. This year the Ballo del Doge is in its 19th Edition, named "Queensessence", and "it is dedicated to all the women who are Queens at heart", says Antonia, who has just been nominated "Venetian of the year". On February 18th, at 8.30 PM, the gates of Palazzo Pisani Moretta, an historical palace of Venice on Canal Grande, will open to welcome the guests.
Now I am more and more curious about the event and I ask for details. "I can only say that we always follow a rhythm throughout the night, it will be a crescendo of surprises divided by floor (3 in total). I can’t say more, you need to live it." She truly believes it's almost impossible to recount Il Ballo del Doge until you see it, and she must be right: after all, it is true that when you wake up from a beautiful dream and you try to recount it, you somehow always spoil it.
Written by: Elisa della Barba
Drawings by: Antonia Sautter
Photos by: Mirco Toffolo, Ezio Consoli