Once it was among the richest cities on the continent, a home port for great fleets of ships and a magnet for artists and entrepreneurs despite its floods and epidemics. It never fully recovered from being on the wrong side of a war, yet its elaborate architecture, music, culture and Carnival rituals imbued it with a reputation for romantic hedonism that few cities could match. Descriptions of Venice, Italy, often sound a lot like New Orleans, and this colorfully elegant exhibit of 18th-century Venetian paintings reiterates that impression of a surreal place where theatrical street life and relentless joie de vivre prevailed in spite of — or perhaps because of — its perilous position as a low-lying city surrounded by water. Superbly curated by Giandomenico Romanelli, the expo provides a revealing look at how an ingrained Carnival culture can lend a near mythic aura to all aspects of civic affairs via a pervasive participatory performance-art quality of street life in visually operatic settings. Allegory of the Triumph of Venice looks like the most opulent Mardi Gras float ever, a massive triple-decker pulled by elephants and crammed with resplendent royals, knights, noblewomen, saints, angels and city officials. Attributed to Joseph Heintz the Younger, it really was a fanciful history painting celebrating Venice's victory over the Turks in 1687. It blends seamlessly with Gabriel Bella's Fat Thursday Festivity in the Piazzetta (pictured), where colorfully costumed celebrants mingle with acrobats and performers in a theatrical urban setting. Venetians' flair for the carnivalesque was evident year round in commedia dell'arte street theater performances like the one in Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's great painting, The Minuet, where an aristocratic beauty appears surrounded by menacingly grotesque maskers. One of the New Orleans Museum of Art's longtime holdings, it finally appears in a context that explains its wild psychological intensity. But masquerade was a way of life in a city where illegal casinos proliferated and elegantly stylish masks were de rigueur for prominent citizens who preferred to remain anonymous.