Carnival farrago, part 1

A couple in full bauta regalia: mask, hat and mantle (Giovanni Grevenbroch, 18th century).

A couple in full bauta regalia: mask, hat and mantle (Giovanni Grevenbroch, 18th century).

There are just too many curious things about the way Carnival was  back in the Great Days, so I’m only going to tell you a few of the ones I  think are interesting.   Anyway, it’s not as if they have any relevance now. For all the roar of media coverage today,  what goes on here is a hoarse whisper  compared to the cacophony that was Carnival before 1797.  

And Paris must be deserted; there are nothing but French people in town.

For many centuries, Carnival  here was primarily a Venetian phenomenon, which is to say an integral part of Venetian life and culture.   But when Vasco da Gama reached the Spice Islands by means of a daring new route round the Cape of Good Hope (1497),  Venice’s monopoly of the spice trade collapsed virtually overnight, dragging the city’s economy down with it.

Struggling to get the city back on its feet, somebody began to put the word out that the Venice Carnival was one heck of a thing to  see.    Yes, Venice  could discern its potential for  tourism even before the invention of bullets and parachutes,  and the Venetian merchants, staring into their now-empty coffers, were quick to make the most of it.

  • Costumes:   People would dress up as virtually anything, from a classic character such as Pulcinella (from Naples) or Arlecchino (from Bergamo) to plague victims, blind people, cripples,  Jews, Turks, lepers, peasants from Friuli, men dressed as women.   These were known as “Gnaga” ( NYAH-ga) and had their own particular mask to go with their feminine clothes.   The mask was meant to resemble a cat, and the person would meow instead of talking.   (It must have looked great on a person with a beard.)   The gnaga  also carried a little cat in a basket, or sometimes even a tiny baby, or he/she’d be accompanied by men dressed as babies.   Don’t ask me.

    A "gnaga" with a suspiciously empty basket (Giovanni Grevenbroch, 18th century).

    A "gnaga" with a suspiciously empty basket (Giovanni Grevenbroch, 18th century).

The wildly absurd and  equally wildly obscene elements which so many favored (I refer to behavior as much as garb) were not simply a crucial social safety valve (keeping in mind that the patricians lived with loads of restrictions, too — it wasn’t just the salt of the earth that needed a break).    It appears that people have always exploited the absurd and the obscene as a way of  exorcising  their dread of death and the demonic, and Carnival was the Olympics of spitting in the face of fear, as well as in the face of manners and rules and occasionally, I imagine, other people.

Sir Thomas More  famously stated that “The devil, a proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked,” so the broader, sharper, and deeper the derision, the better.      That went double for the rude and the lewd.    So really, unless you were putting somebody life or savings in danger, there was no such thing as too wild, too crude, too raunchy– too anything.   They organized races for boats rowed by dwarfs, or the blind.  

  • Masks:   There is a universe of lore about their meaning, their function, etc.      Did you know that…
  • bauta larva compThe white mask often called a bauta is more correctly termed Volto (face) or “Larva.”   Sounds repellent, but it comes from the Latin meaning ghost, specter, minor evil spirit.   Its extraordinary shape resolves several important concerns: First, it completely hides the face; second, it leaves space for the wearer to eat and drink; third, its shape alters the speaker’s voice, thereby acting as a kind of vocal, as well as visual,  disguise.  

morettaw1 moretta crop compI think my favorite is the “Moretta,” or “Servetta Muta.”   It’s so strange it could only have come from France (it did), and it started out, at least, as something to be  worn by women when they went to visit a convent.   It was usually made of black velvet, and wasn’t attached by ribbons; you kept it on your face by biting down on a small button attached to the faceward side.   (Hence the term “mute.”)  

I can see what the appeal would be for men, but if you couldn’t speak, why would you go visit someone in a convent in the first place?   To give the nuns a chance to talk?

A detail from "The Rhinoceros" by Pietro Longhi shows the "moretta" mask out and about.

A detail from "The Rhinoceros" by Pietro Longhi shows the "moretta" mask out and about.

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