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

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