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A City by the Sea like Venice can’t help but have mermaid legends. The Blue Mermaid by Comtessenathalie Desmons - a magnificent fine art costume of unrivalled beauty. This is one of the most iconic costumes in the history of the Venice Carnevale. The costume debut was in 2012, way before I arrived at the Venice Carnevale in 2014. Usually, costumers use the costume for just 1 year at the Carnevale, and then retire them, bringing out new costumes every year. I requested my friend Nathalie to bring this costume back for me and this picture was done at this year's Carnevale. When a photographer requests something extra-ordinary from a model, he'd better have a damn good idea of what he's gonna achieve - this was what I have been telling myself all this while.
Venice can get extremely crowded during Carnevale, and this is one costume that makes walking extremely difficult. Having the feet within the tail just makes the costumer walk like an actual fish out of water, so I had to keep this in mind when photographing the Blue Mermaid. I shot this at the entrance of a tunnel early one morning, using just natural light alone. I then added in the blue glow on photoshop to represent the light of the moon and the coloured orbs to give it that under water fantasy look. Mermaids are elusive creatures. When they are seen, it is usually lighted by the orb of the night (moon) - something which the merfolks hold sacred or during the hours of dawn and dusk. These are magical times – when sight and perception becomes blurred within the mellow lights of dusk and dawn. In photography, we call this the Blue Hour (from French l'heure bleue) - the period of twilight in the morning or evening, during the civil and nautical stages, when the Sun is at a significant depth below the horizon and residual, indirect sunlight takes on a predominantly blue shade. This is symbolic of the ideal opportunity to create fantasy in our dreams – by relaxing our vision and letting go of our senses a bit – we come up to show ourselves drenched in the glow of a truly magical scene.
The name of the mermaid in Venice is Melusine or Melusina. Melusina is the spirit of fresh water, usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down, much like the mythical mermaid. She is also frequently illustrated with two tails. The image of Melusina is so famous and enduring that, perhaps without knowing her by name, we still recognize her image today as the logo for Starbucks Coffee. The legends of Melusine are especially connected with the northern and western areas of France, Luxembourg and the Low Countries. Her name derives from Mère Lusine (“Mother of the Lusignans”), connecting her with Cyprus, where the French Lusignan ruling royal house (1192 to 1489) claimed to be her descendants. The legend of Melusina, therefore, is related to the territorial and dynastic expansion of her descendants beyond Lusignan across the Mediterranean to distant Armenia during the crusades (1095 – 1291). Legend has it that one day during a period of the Crusades, Elynas, the King of Albany (another name for Scotland at the time), went hunting and saw a beautiful lady in the forest. The lady’s name was Pressyne. It was love at first sight and Elynas persuaded her to marry him. The lady accepted his proposal with the condition that he must never enter the chamber where the children were born and bathed.
The couple lived happily for some time until Pressyne gave birth to triplets. When, as one would expect to happen in these stories, her husband broke his promise. For all this while, her beauty never faded with the passage of time, and she always had an aura of mystery about her that made him increasingly discontent. Pressyne left the kingdom, together with her three daughters, and traveled to the lost Isle of Avalon where her daughters — Melusina, Melior and Palatyne — would grow up. On their fifteenth birthday, the eldest daughter, Melusina, asked her mother why she separated them from their father and took them to Avalon. After hearing of their father's broken promise, Melusina sought revenge. She rallied her sisters and the they captured Elynas and trapped him in a mountain. When she heard what her daughters have done, Pressyne punished them for their disrespect to their father. She condemned Melusina to take the form of a fish from the waist down every Saturday. In other versions of the legend, Melusina was condemned to take on the form of a serpent on Saturdays. In some stories, her form was that of a two-tailed mermaid.
In Venice, the mermaid legend takes place in the Sotoportego dei Preti in the Castello district, which houses a small red brick heart. The underpass is quite a popular place because the couples who touch the heart together hope that the local legend is true and that their love will remain eternal. Legend has it that a fisherman, named Orio, rescued a beautiful mermaid called Melusina. From their meeting a deep love story was born: Orio asked the Melusina to marry him and she agreed with the promise, however, not to meet her on Saturday in the days before the wedding. On the third Saturday curiosity got the better of Orio and at the usual meeting place, the fisherman didn't find the mermaid, but an enormous sea snake that turned out to be Melusina herself, struck by a curse. The curse turned her into a monster every Saturday and the only way to end the spell was marriage. Orio decided to marry her anyway: the mermaid Melusina turned into a woman and gave birth to three children, but despite years of joy, the woman passed away of an incurable disease. Left alone, Orio continued to work to support his family: on his returns from the sea, however, he noticed that the house was always kept clean and tidy. Suspicious, he decided one day to come back earlier to thank whoever was helping him in secret; but waiting for him he didn't find a person, but a snake. Afraid and worried for his own safety and that of his children, Orio instinctively killed the animal. Only in the following days, finding the house messy on his return, he realized he had killed nothing but Melusina. He placed a red brick heart in the underpass to remember Melusina.
My inspiration for this shoot comes from those 1970s and 80s Bronze Age Marvel and DC Comic books. Mermaids are matrons of enchantment, beseeching sailor boys with their beauty, grace and spellbinding songs of the seas. I wanted that Ken Kelly oil painting feel of comic cards from that era with the female characters from the Namor and Aquaman series in mind, but of course with a Venetian twist to it.
The photo shoot was not an easy one, at least not emotionally. Nathalie is still recovering from her injuries and so her daughter Emeline would put on the costume this year. A family tragedy had occurred a few hours before the photo shoot and the model need to return to France, but being ever so professional, she wanted to continue with the photo shoot before leaving Venice just a few hours later. As with all Venetian Mask photos, she communicated with just her eyes - yes, so the tinge of sadness and the Mermaid's tears are all real. I held my breath and pressed the shutter. In that moment of truth, I was reminded that I need to be proud of my photographic creations..I had given them, and myself, something that would last a lifetime ...In Venice, we cherish every moment...