Tuesday, 8 March 2011


I'm not Catholic and I don't live in New Orleans, so Mardi Gras has always remained a mystery to me.  That said, I once worked with a very bubbly Catholic woman who made giving up something for Lent sound so fun that I sacrificed meat one year just to keep her company.  I told you about her before.    But I'm not writing so much about Lent just now as about masks.   

In her book, Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, the author talks about Venice under the heading 'Masquarades'.  She says that in the 1700s it was the habit of the nobles of that city to go out disguised for about half the year - between early October through Lent.  

The costume of the upper classes included a black capelet, black tricorn hat and a white half mask.  Some women chose a moretta, a black oval mask which they kept in place by clinching a button on the mask between their teeth; this mask and their silence was thought to be even more disturbing.  Children were frightened of these creatures.  The nobility found their anonymity to be quite freeing.  

However, according to two other sources, the wearing of masks dates back to the 1200's.  


Another tells that Carnival (another term for  the celebrations preceding Lent)   
is likely an English corruption of carne vale (Late Latin, literally "farewell to meat"), the name Venetians gave to pre-Lenten revelry as early as 1092.
Apparently, over the years things got ever more decadent. Venice with it's incredible wealth and unique appearance attracted travelers from all over the world.  Gambling and sex could be found everywhere; after all, everyone was anonymous.  [Never mind anonymous sex, how did one collect one's gambling debts?]  Women's clothing became more revealing.  Even nuns and monks are said to have joined in.  Rome turned a blind eye so long as the money kept coming in.  

In the late 1700s, thanks to Napoleon, Venice found itself under the thumb of Austria, their neighbours to the East.  Under the Austrians the whole mask-wearing and anonymous partying  was discouraged.  

Things apparently calmed down a bit, particularly as Venice no longer had a monopoly on trade from the east.  By then, however, masked balls had become popular in the rest of Europe and even amongst the colonials of the US.

Mask wearing continued in Venice until the 1930's when Mussolini banned the practice altogether.  In 1951, a wealthy art collector held a masked ball and in 1979 Venice revived it's Carnival.

So, being neither Catholic nor in a place that celebrates Mardi Gras (the most exciting thing they do here is make pancakes), why did I decide to write about masks and all?  So I could show you these photos I took in Venice, of course!

1 comment:

Rick Stone said...

We're at a RV rally in Moultrie, Georgia, and the theme of the rally is Mardi Gras. Jo has a ladies luncheon today and the ladies were asked to make hats or masks to wear. She has put together a Mardi Gras hat/mask.

We're having trouble getting internet access and have to go over to a building in the rally area to get on so we may be hit or miss this week. Doubt she'll be on at all until we get to Savannah next week.