Il Ballo del Doge is the most sumptuous masked ball of the Venice Carnival, and over the last 25 years it has become one of the most exclusive and sought-after events to attend in the world. Rosie Meleady meets its creator, the talented Antonia Sautter of this true luxury experience in Italy.
When opportunity comes knocking on the door, it takes a creative and talented entrepreneur to recognise its potential and make the most of it. Antonia Sautter is one such woman. In 1994 fantasy dress designer Antonia was in her costume shop in Venice when the crew of the BBC’s Monty Python series arrived on her doorstep looking for someone to create a fantasy Venetian party setting in a palace for a TV show. Although she had no experience in the area of TV set design, Antonia jumped on the challenge.
Little did she know that the ‘Dance of the Doge’ she created would become an annual fantasy event attended by over 500 people from all around the world, each year with a different theme emulated by acrobats, dancers and actors, creating an interactive fantasy experience for its lucky attendees.
“I take inspiration for every edition of Il Ballo del Doge from the dreams of when I was a little girl, from the imagination my mum, stimulated with her creativity in my childhood games and from Venice, my muse, my motivation, the love of my life.”
Each year the ball has a different theme, each theme special to its creator’s heart, so it is difficult for Antonia to choose her favourite Il Ballo del Doge creation.
“I sometimes define Il Ballo del Doge as my child – trying to choose one among the past 25 editions would be like asking a mother to indicate a favourite one among her kids. Hard, if not impossible. Every edition represents something really special for me, as it is related to a particular time of my life, and in a way an expression of it.
“There are some editions I am particularly fond of, such as the 2012 Edition ‘Queensessence’ – dedicated to the queens of history, myth and imaginary – or last year’s edition as it was the 25th (a quite important goal!) and for a magical coincidence it overlapped with my 60th birthday! Then of course the very first one as it was, although I didn’t know it at that time, the first milestone of what would be accompanying me for all these years.”
Il Ballo del Doge is hosted in the same historical location each year, spread over the three floors of Palazzo Pisani Moretta, a stunning Venetian palace facing the Grand Canal. Creating each event is a massive undertaking, both from a creative and logistical point of view. It involves a team of 30 staff working full-time throughout the year and over 300 people involved on the final day.
“It all starts with a vision I have of the main theme and its sub-themes, that will be developed in the three different floors of the palace where the ball is held. Then, during the following months, I focus on decorations, scenic props, costumes and of course performances, shows, music, invitations and a lot more.” The invitations to the event which are especially conceived and designed for every edition are now a sought-after collectable item.
“Creating Il Ballo del Doge takes an entire year or more, as sometimes the idea of the new theme comes to my mind before the previous one is finished. I then have to fight with myself not to be distracted from the other one! Imagination is so hard to tame!”
What makes Antonia a truly remarkable event planner is that she has to create the whole event in less than 12 hours and compete with the high tides of Venice and logistics of bringing in everything necessary by boat.
“We are allowed to enter the palace at 8 a.m. and at 8 p.m. we have to be ready for the arrival of the first guests. Everything starts at dawn when scenic props and decorations leave my warehouse on the mainland to reach Venice as soon as possible. Seamstresses too are operative from the very early morning for the last adjustments on the costumes. Then it’s all in a rush. Setting up, assembly of backdrops and props, installation of sound and lighting systems, tables, chairs, arrival of food and the preparation of it, creation of centrepieces and other decorations, and then of course rehearsals of more than 100 artists who will perform that night in the three hour long show.”
And after overseeing and managing the set-up of this major production, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly Antonia disappears and reappears to be the perfect host for the night: “I work all day at the palace fighting against time until the first guest approaches the pier of the palace … this is the most critical moment: the zero hour. My heart begins to beat wildly: everything must be in place, performers ready to begin, and once I’ve checked everything, in a blink of an eye I disappear from the scene to go backstage to put on my costume in some endless breathless moment, like I’m in sleep apnoea!
“I re-appear completely transformed through the main entrance while most of my guests have already arrived. The magic has begun and I feel thrilled and energetic for what is going to happen.
“People say that I am a perfectionist, I like to care for every single detail. I like to repeat as a mantra to my team a Leonardo da Vinci quote, ‘Details make perfection and perfection is not a detail’. But to be faithful to this my team and I are always under pressure and, I will not lie, stress is a component of the night but when I see my guests’ eyes enchanted, their smiles, their happiness I know that this is indeed what only matters and I say to myself that my mission is accomplished.”
If you think this 25 years of work is an amazing feat for one woman, you realise it is only the icing on the cake when you step into her costume shop. There you will find her atelier treasures – more than 1,500 costumes she has personally designed and created over the last 25 years. In addition to these creations there are also the costumes she has created for her international clients who bought them for Il Ballo del Doge and for other special occasions, such as weddings.
People can hire Antonia’s costumes not only for Il Ballo del Doge but any special occasions, and very often they are requested for photoshoots, fashion shows, videos, etc.
“My mission is turning people’s dreams into reality, be it a dream event or of course a costume. I often like to say, ‘Wear the costume, live the magic!’ ”
The 2019 edition of Il Ballo del Doge’s theme is ‘The Magnificent Ephemeral – In Praise of Dream, Folly and Sin’.
Antonia explains, “Behind the provocation of the title, a tribute to the importance of living fully the beauty of a moment, which lasts only one night, but which remains etched in your memory forever.
“The ball this year will be a gift to all those who are able to seize the moment, catching beauty in the instant she shows herself. A flower before it withers away, a sunset before the night takes over, a butterfly twisting light at her very last flap of her wings. All the Creation, including life itself is ephemeral but can become long lasting in your memories: this is what makes it immortal.
“A year of work to live a dream lasting one night only, of which the memories I hope will be etched in the heart of those who lived it. It is in the perpetual renovation of the power of creativity that the ephemeral can become eternal.”
Il Ballo del Doge takes place on 2 March 2019. It is open to everyone who wishes to live a night of dream and unexpected scenarios. For 2019 tickets or to reserve your place for 2020, or to hire costumes for the Venice Carnival email: firstname.lastname@example.org