During Carnival nowadays, anybody who normally sells anything lays on a batch of souvenirs — masks, capes and other stuff.
Here are a few more morsels of lore about Carnival back in the Old Days:
Laws: I realize that the Carnival motto is “anything goes,” which makes the idea of laws somewhat incongruous. But “anything” could — and did — lead to enough dangerous and unstable behavior over time that the adults supposedly supervising this city-wide party were forced to set some ground rules. Their significance is pretty obvious. For example:
It was forbidden in 1703 to wear the bauta in the ridotti, or gambling houses. The government was apparently the last to realize (after centuries of Carnival) that being completely disguised was a great way to hide from your creditors. So, no hiding behind masks and capes for any nefarious purpose, because they were also …
… a great way to conceal your identity as you lurked around stealing things and killing people. On February 11, 1720, the government decreed that the capo, or head, of each neighborhood was to patrol his territory with eight men every night of Carnival; there had to be some effort made to limit, if not completely prevent, the mayhem and murder that seemed to be the natural consequence of fun and frolic. It must have been a great time to settle scores.
It was forbidden to wear masks during a plague.
It was forbidden to carry weapons if you were masked. Duh.
It was forbidden to dress up as a priest and it was most especially forbidden for men to dress up as nuns. If they did either of these things, it was just too easy for them to enter convents or churches and debauch the sisters. Not that the nuns cared, especially; a large percentage of them didn’t want to be Brides of Christ in the first place, and plenty of them absolutely made the most of Carnival anonymity. I’m presuming that women had also been making the most of voluminous Carnival coverings to visit the monasteries.
Just to make sure there was a stop to this particular bit of chicanery, on January 24, 1458 it was decreed that nobody wearing a mask would be permitted to enter a church, convent, or any other sacred place. Period.
Once you really get into the Carnival groove, you start to look at everybody differently. Like these two individuals. Who are they really? And what an amazing costume they’ve put together — they look just like two little old ladies from the neighborhood.
The Carnival Calendar:
You couldn’t wear masks just any time you felt like it. It was like hunting season, with fairly specific dates:
It started in October, when everybody came back from summer vacation in their country villas, and the theatres began to open. At its height, Venice had 17 theatres, an extraordinary number for a city in those days. And Carnival continued, with a brief interruption for Christmas, until Ash Wednesday ushered in Lent.
Masks were also allowed to be worn during the two weeks of the feast of the Ascension and its phenomenal market, which filled the Piazza San Marco with vendors from all over the Mediterranean basin and beyond.
You know it’s Carnival when there’s confetti (sorry — coriandoli) literally everywhere
And then there was the convenient clause of “and whenever appropriate” (as I think of it). Masks could be permitted by special decree for very special occasions. For example, masks were allowed during the celebrations of the victory of the Battle of Lepanto (1571). Among the countless public festivities was a parade of allegorical floats: “Christianity” was represented in the act of crushing a chained dragon; “Victory” vaunted itself over the vanquished; and “Death” was triumphant, complete with sickle. It was all party, all the time for several weeks, and that could only mean break out the masks.
In any case, in good times or bad, one unassailable rule was that Carnival could not be interrupted. When doge Paolo Renier died on February 13, 1789, they didn’t report the death until March 2.
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).
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…
The 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.
I 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.
I love a sign like this -- sounds more like a command than an invitation.
As if we needed any excuse — or permission — to gorge on food loaded with fat and sugar, today it’s take no prisoners. I haven’t found any special dispensation that promises that the fat and sugar consumed today will do less, or no, damage as they make themselves comfortable in their new home on your hips and in your arteries. But we can pretend. It’s Carnival, after all. No rules.
So the short version of today’s amusement can be summed up as: Fritole and galani. Venetians say that “El Zioba Grasso tute le boche lica” (“On Fat Thursday everybody licks their mouth”). More broadly translated: gorge, scarf, devour. Or my new favorite, “englut.” Makes me feel slightly sick without having eaten anything.
But even eating ten kilos of fritole and galani can’t match the excitement that was reserved for today back in the Olden Days.
The Venetian Republic made a fetish of commemorating important events in its life — every single victory, it would appear, and even some defeats. It all worked to keep Venetians united in their Venetian-ness and reinforce how very special, important, and amazing that was. And naturally any people who regard themselves and their city/nation/world in that light is bound to enjoy really laying it on when recalling certain events.
Take that little business of Ulrich of Treffen, Patriarch of Aquileia. No need to lose ourselves in the maze that was Venice’s relationship with ecclesiastical power; let’s just say that for centuries religious disagreements were more commonly (and certainly clearly) expressed in political and military terms. Or, conversely, political and military projects almost always involved some highly placed representatives of the Prince of Peace.
So the Patriarch of Aquileia, after a decisive battle in 1162, was taken prisoner and carried off to Venice along with his 12 canons. They offered an unusual ransom for their freedom: A bull and 12 fat pigs, which they promised would be provided every Fat Thursday for 200 years. And so it was.
Thus every Giovedi Grasso, to recall this glorious victory/humiliation, the public festivities involved the slaughter of the bull (the patriarch) and the fat pigs (the canons). Nice! I’m not referring to the aspect of blood, I’m referring to the aspect of insult. And everybody enjoyed it so much that it continued even after the 200 years were up.
In the early days of this entertainment, the bull was killed by the doge, and the pigs by the senators. (No comments, please.) Eventually Andrea Gritti (doge from 1523 to 1538), he of the palace which has become famous as a luxury hotel, decreed that the pigs be killed by members of the Butchers’ guild, while the bull would be dispatched by “the most robust member of the Ironworkers’ guild” with a single blow of a massive sword, a titanic decapitation in which the sword wasn’t allowed to touch the ground.
Even today, a common Venetian way of saying “Let’s get to the point” is “Tagliamo la testa al toro” — let’s cut the head off the bull. I hazard that “cut the bull” might be an Anglo-Saxon relative of the phrase and its meaning, but let’s move on.
So what did the doge and Senators do while the gore was flowing? They took clubs in hand and attacked 12 towers and a church made of marzipan, which they bludgeoned to smithereens.
Me, bludgeonless, I went to the Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso dei Calafati e Carpentieri for their fritola-fest this afternoon. This mutual-aid society, formed by the erstwhile Caulkers and Carpenters of the Arsenal, makes a specialty of sometimes organizing little neighborhood parties, almost exclusively intended for the kids. Although — from what I’ve seen — each kid seems to arrive accompanied by a phalanx of voracious relatives, none of whom appears starved for fat or sugar, and with the phrase “Me First” invisibly tattooed on their foreheads.
When we walked out the front door at 4:45, the voluptuous perfume of just-fried fritole suffused our little street. Looking around, we discovered that they were being turned out in the taverna two steps away. A taverna here isn’t anything like in Greece; here the word connotes somebody’s (usually a guy, often old) haven that’s something like a cross between a garage and a rec room, usually with some kind of primitive kitchen set-up. Evidently one of the caulkers was frying up a fresh batch for the refreshment table.
It was a wonderful little interlude, out in via Garibaldi. The fritole were the best I’ve ever had, delectable little blobs, not too big, containing just the right amount of candied fruit and covered with a little more than the right amount of sugar. The galani were heavenly, shards of deep-fried dough thinner than onionskin, under clouds of powdered sugar. If there’d been more of a crowd I’d certainly have gone back for thirds, and fourths, and fifths. But I didn’t want the guys to start thinking, What — her again?
What I really want to know, though, is where the leftovers ended up. I want to go there and help dispose of them as nature intended.
One of a couple of events which the organizers of Carnival have revived after rummaging around in Venetian history is a beauty pageant which is based on one of the more dramatic exploits in the city’s entire life story. And a beauty pageant.
It is called the festa delle Marie (ma-REE-eh), which is plural for Maria. There were 12, actually or temporarily named Maria, and what happened to them was not only an exciting demonstration of the fledgling republic’s developing power, but a great way to add a party to the calendar.
The long parade from San Pietro di Castello to San Marco is composed largely of history re-enactors from all over Italy.
The story begins around the year 943, though documented accounts date from 1039. Some details remain open to scholarly debate, but the outline of the episode goes like this:
On the annual feast of the Madonna Candelora (February 2, also known as the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary), Venetians not only went to mass, they also organized an entertainment disguised as an act of municipal and Christian charity. Or vice versa. In any case, they were very good at this, I want to say without sarcasm — a skill that civic leaders today might consider acquiring.
Taking the established custom of blessing girls who were newlyweds on February 2, somebody thought it would be wonderful to choose 12 poor girls and include them in the event.
The Marias line up, waiting to board their wooden platform (one is leaning against the wall in the background) borne by four hardy young men.
These twelve damsels had to be poor (otherwise the charitable part of the operation would be meaningless), obviously had to be engaged, and of course they had to be divinely beautiful — or at least more beautiful than any other poor engaged girl in their district.
The patrician families in their respective districts took up a collection to provide them with dowries; the doge lent them masses of jewelry of gold and precious stones from the state treasury, and they went in a procession of boats to the church of San Pietro di Castello, where they were blessed by the bishop in a sumptuous ceremony in the presence of the doge himself and all the noble families (on February 2, obviously).
The girls then resumed their procession, going to the Doge’s Palace (which it’s entirely possible they had never even seen; until recently, life here was generally limited to your own little neighborhood), where they were the centerpiece of a magnificent reception. Then everyone climbed aboard the Bucintoro, the doge’s ceremonial barge (in those early days it did not resemble the elaborate final version made famous in paintings by Canaletto, but still — the doge’s barge) and, followed by innumerable boats, went up the Grand Canal to the Rialto, then down the canal of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi to Santa Maria Formosa, where more solemn ceremonies awaited them in the church.
She's up, and she's off. The Marias commence their stately procession; the men commence to ask themselves why they said yes.
Things had gone along like this to general rejoicing until the year 943, when a crew of pirates — led by a certain Gaiolo, an Istrian pirate notorious for stealing Venetians and making slaves of them — burst into the church with his trusty marauders and made off with the girls. The Marias may have had a certain commercial value, but their jewelry must have been utterly amazing.
The doge — Pietro Candiani III — hastily organized a band of hardy men (I am not making this up) and they went racing off in hot pursuit, doge included. They caught up with the pirates near Caorle, slew them to a man, and carried home the brides (and their jewelry) in triumph.
If there had been a festa before, from this point it became ever more elaborate; not only to celebrate the 12 girls (as before), but now to commemorate the daring rescue of the 12 girls. Each February 2 the chosen girls were temporarily re-baptized with the name Maria, they were invited to all sorts of parties and receptions and balls and even mass in the major churches of the city. Venetians considered it good luck merely to be able to get near them. All this went on for nine days.
But it’s hard to keep anything up at that level of organization, cost, enthusiasm — whatever it is that makes festivals work. By 1272 the 12 girls had been cut back to four, then to three, because the cost had become annoying to the state as well as the noble families who were funding the event. There was also a big and expensive war going on with Genoa, the War of Chioggia. Can’t do everything. Can’t pay for everything, either.
At that point somebody conveniently decided that it was wrong for people to have become fixated on this festival as a great way to ogle some beautiful babes when they should have been focusing on the religious aspect of the day.
So they eliminated the girls altogether and substituted figures made of wood — specifically, large slabs of wood cut out along the silhouette of a beautiful poor girl. Think paper dolls.
People hated it, and threw stones and vegetables at the wooden Marias when they passed. So the government passed a law, in 1349, forbidding the throwing of stones and vegetables at the wooden Marias. But the festa was obviously destined to die, and in 1379 it was suppressed altogether.
I'm not saying our girls today are more beautiful than the originals, but I know they have better teeth.
But not everywhere. The reviled wooden stand-ins, called “Marione de tola” in Venetian (big Marys made of planks), were taken up by the French in reduced form, and before you can say zut alors, they had become known as Marionets or petits Marions, and then marionette.
Now it’s Venice, February 7, 2010, and the Marias are back. For the past few years, part of the opening festivities of Carnival has been the Festa delle Marie, a procession of costumed re-enactors accompanying 12 beautiful girls which wends on foot from San Pietro di Castello to San Marco. The girls are chosen by a jury from many, many applications, and I doubt that they have to be either poor or engaged anymore. But they do need to be beautiful.
For a few years, back in the Nineties (I seem to recall 1996), there was another element: the Regata delle Marie. Rowing races were historically part of any important Venetian festivity, and this one was intended for pairs of women rowing mascaretas. The idea was that both women (or girls) had to be amateurs, rowers who had never participated in the official city races.
I joined in either the first or second edition, with an Argentinian girl named Magdalena. We were all nobodies; it was great. The starting line was just on the other side of the church of San Pietro, in the Canale delle Navi. We raced along somewhere toward Sant’ Erasmo — I wasn’t paying too much attention to the landmarks, especially after the purple boat veered across our bow and we kind of ran into it.
But we disentangled ourselves and rowed like Istrian pirates being pursued by an angry doge, and back up into the rio di Quintavalle to the finish line in front of the church. After all that, we actually came in fourth, which meant we won a pennant, which is all that matters. I also remember that experience because the second we crossed the finish line, Magdalena said, “I’m never racing again.” I never asked her why.
The race did well enough for a couple of years, then people began bending the rules into all kinds of weird shapes till the participants were basically the same people on the official roster. So the race, like the original festival, fizzled out, at least as part of Carnival. It’s now held in June, in honor of San Pietro. Nice thought, but nothing to do with pirates and doges.
But back to Carnival. The procession of happy, heavily costumed Marias is fun, at least when the sun is shining. Where else can you dress up and be carried for a mile on a wooden platform by gondoliers while thousands of people take your picture?
And it’s fun for the onlookers too, because — some things never change — they get to look at beautiful girls in fancy clothes.