All the World's a Stage: Venice and Carnevale
By Ellis Drake
Shakespeare might have meant "All the world's a stage" figuratively, but during the Venetian Carnevale, it was literally true.
Today, Carnevale occupies two weeks before the start of Lent—no more, no less. Between the 12th century, when Carnevale started, and 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and outlawed Carnevale, however, there was so set schedule for it. Carnevale could happen at any time before the start of Lent, and by the 18th century it lasted for six months out of the year!
During Carnevale, everyone who appeared in public wore a mask. This wasn't just a gesture: the anonymity the mask afforded was considered sacred, giving everyone from the Doge to street urchins the illusion of equality. One 18th century visitor even reported seeing a masked mother nursing a masked baby! It was illegal to unmask someone in public or even touch them, and to speak someone's name during Carnevale could get you punched in the face or thrown out of the Ridotto, the world's first casino.
The types of masks Venetians wore weren't what you see for sale from street vendors in St. Mark's Square today. The state mask of Venice was the bauta, a white mask with a hooked nose that evolved out of the medico della peste, masks doctors wore during the plague. This mask was usually combined with a tricorn and black cape that effectively obscured the identity, and someones even the gender, of its wearer. However, if you were a woman and feeling a bit naughty, you might wear the moretta mask, a black oval with no mouth sometimes combined with a domino cape. These masks were held in place with a button gripped between the teeth of wearer, making it impossible for her to eat, drink, or speak. The moretta masks were favored because they contrasted well with Venetians' characteristic blonde hair. A woman wearing a moretta during Carnevale was only looking for one thing, and it wasn't a handshake.
There were other masks worn, as well, based on characters from the commedia dell'arte, a vaudeville-esque improvisational play with stock characters, many of whom were based off of stereotypes from different regions across Italy. Venice's commedia dell'arte character was Pantalone, a greedy old merchant with a hooked nose, hunched back, and pointed Turkish slippers. Venetians took these roles very seriously—tourists who dressed as commedia characters and didn't fulfill the roles satisfactorily were beaten and left in the streets. Talk about a bad review!
And everywhere there was music: Gondoliers sang the poetry of Torquato Tasso, men sang sonatas to beautiful women in balconies, and one 18th-century visitor, writer Charles Burney, observed that Venetians seemed to converse in song. Nietzsche once wrote, “when I seek another word for music, I always find only the word Venice.” Music was the heartbeat of Venice, infusing the streets as people danced to it in complex patterns that reflected the heavens and earth. On barges, in streets, and in squares, there was constant music and dancing.
Considering the Venetians’ love for music, theatricality, and dance, is it any wonder the city is also the birthplace of opera? As Peter Ackroyd writes in Venice: Pure City, “It was an art of the scenic and spectacular, in a city filled with the energetic display of festival and carnival.”
The Carnevale of today is a pale, commercialized imitation of the original, but the legacy it left behind still has the power to spark the imagination of even the most pedantic historian. Considering the magic and alluring fantasy of Carnevale, is it any wonder Venetians spent half a year celebrating it?
A twist on the fairy tale The Little Mermaid set in 18th-century Venice...
On a barge anchored in the middle of the Adriatic, Marco Lorendan meets a mysterious and beautiful woman. His fascination for her is sealed when she saves him from drowning and then disappears into the sea. Is she dead, or simply lost? Marco is determined to find out.
Living beneath the waters of the lagoon, Serena can change into whatever form she chooses, but cannot change her fate: to die in an ancient ritual that goes back to the founding of Venice. Serena wants to live in the human world with Marco, but will she save herself if it means the destruction of Venice?
A tale of star-crossed lovers and the magic that created one of the most beautiful cities on earth.