Monday, September 28, 2009

The Carnival in 18th century Venice:

"The Carnival mask was not, as elsewhere, a simple affair covering mouth and eyes. In Venice it was a sort of enfolding cape or mantle with a black hood over the head and shoulders, the whole surmounted by a little tricorne hat. The actual mask is described as being 'closely modelled on the white mask of classical times, its beaked outline altering the face into that of some strange bird cut in chalk.'

Perfect for its purpose, the bautta became almost a uniform for Carnival. From Doge to kitchenmaid, everybody wore it, man, woman and child of every age and station. Servant-girls went masked to market, mothers carried babies in masks in their arms, the lawyer wore a mask to plead in court.

The long domino-cloak or tabarro so widely used in Venice was generally adopted at Carnival time. In the tabarro, unless a skirt should happen to show beneath the hem, it was impossible to tell the sexes apart, and so the women took care to lengthen their dominoes until they swept the ground. In the whole packed Piazza di San Marco no one could be known or recognised again, unless perhaps it were Casanova and those who, like him, affected the display of a gold-braided velvet coat under the half-open tabarro.

But he and his friends were eccentrics and all the rest were agreed and determined on concealment. If a woman knew whose chatter she was listening to, whether he were a senator or her own shoe-maker, it would ill become her to give any sign of recognition. A man would never hint that he recognised a woman; she would have broken off the encounter at once. It was just not done to indicate that you had pierced a disguise, and when someone spotted the Papal Nuncio in bautta and tabarro and besought immediate blessing everybody, as Montesquieu recalls, was dreadfully shocked.

Watertight anonymity was in fact the great lure of the Carnival, the relish that made it what it was. Goldoni calls the mask 'the most advantageous thing in the world', and there was nothing a masker dared not do. Before him difficulties melted away. Whoever he might be, he could join any company, go into any salon, sit down to cards, take part in the conversation, pay women extravagant compliments. Women, for their part, could walk about as they fancied, enter the cafes or the lowest haunts there were, and have unmentionable adventures. Maskers could even get into the convents whenever they wanted to. Who was to forbid them, when nobody could possibly tell whether they were male, female, rogues and vagabonds or authority personified. There were neither rich nor poor, police nor facchini. There was only Sior Maschera, and who was to set limits for that faceless personage? Noble and commoner were confounded as Casanova says, 'prince with subject, the ordinary with the remarkable man, lovely and hideous together. There were no longer valid laws, nor law-makers.' Difference was obliterated, the social structure cancelled out. Dissembling was suddenly good behaviour and deviousness a merit, as the elite of the underworld rubbed shoulders were the worthier multitude."

from Daily Life in Venice in the Time of Casanova by Maurice Andrieux

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Two interesting passages from Designing and Making Stage Scenery by Michael Ware:

"The historian Pollux, writing in the second century AD, tells us of some of the machinery used in the Greek theatres. He mentions trap-doors, hoists, cranes, lightning and thunder machines, devices for revealing dead bodies – rolled or swung out on what today we would call 'trucks' or 'wagons'. He also describe the Piraktoi which were revolving prisms painted differently on each facet, and the Mechane for lowering a god at the appropriate moment. Whether all these devices were used by the Greeks in the fifth century BC is doubtful, though we do know that dead bodies had to be revealed mechanically as slaughter was not allowed on the stage; and we know that Euripides lowered the occasional god from above to round off the action of the play."

"In Italy and France the enthusiasm for the theatre of illusion and of spectacle had led to a diminished interest in the drama and an increase of interest in the proliferation of design for opera and ballet. Architects began to specialise in designing scenery. It was very profitable. Vast opera houses were being constructed by princes all over Europe to keep up with the other princes. It is an arguable point whether the building of opera houses is more conducive to the harmony of humanity than the making of nuclear bombs, but in the seventeenth century rivalry was confined the explosion of new scenic devices. Giacomo Torelli was the first artist to specialise in designing scenery; some of his effects were so astute that it was rumoured in Venice that he was in league with the devil, which shows the power of the dedicated designer."

Friday, September 11, 2009

From Nabokov's introduction to his second novel King, Queen, Knave:

"One might readily conjecture that a Russian writer in choosing a set of exclusively German characters (the appearances of my wife and me in the last two chapters are merely visits of inspection) was creating for himself insurmountable difficulties. I spoke no German, had no German friends, had not read a single German novel either in the original, or in translation. But in art, as in nature, a glaring disadvantage may turn out to be a subtle protective device... I felt no inclination to persevere in a technique assignable to the French "human document" type, with a hermetic community faithfully described by one of its members - something not unsimilar, in a small way, to the impassioned and boring ethnopsychics which depress one so often in modern novels. At a stage of gradual inner disentanglement, when I had not yet found, or did not yet dare apply, the very special methods of re-creating a historical situation that I used ten years later in The Gift, the lack of any emotional involvement and the fairytale freedom inherent in an unknown milieu answered my dream of pure invention."

Saturday, September 05, 2009

"De Moivre wrote a book on probability theory, The Doctrine of Chances, said to have been prized by gamblers. It is reported in all seriousness that de Moivre correctly predicted the day of his own death. Noting that he was sleeping 15 minutes longer each day, De Moivre surmised that he would die on the day he would sleep for 24 hours. A simple mathematical calculation quickly yielded the date, 27 November 1754. He did indeed die on that day."