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Venice Incognito

Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic

James H. Johnson
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Venice Incognito
    Book Description:

    "The entire town is disguised," declared a French tourist of eighteenth-century Venice. And, indeed, maskers of all ranks-nobles, clergy, imposters, seducers, con men-could be found mixing at every level of Venetian society. Even a pious nun donned a mask and male attire for her liaison with the libertine Casanova. InVenice Incognito, James H. Johnson offers a spirited analysis of masking in this carnival-loving city. He draws on a wealth of material to explore the world view of maskers, both during and outside of carnival, and reconstructs their logic: covering the face in public was a uniquely Venetian response to one of the most rigid class hierarchies in European history. This vivid account goes beyond common views that masking was about forgetting the past and minding the muse of pleasure to offer fresh insight into the historical construction of identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94862-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. PART ONE The Carnival of Venice

    • CHAPTER 1 Casanova’s Carnival
      (pp. 3-12)

      Casanova celebrated carnival year-round. Where there was revelry, there was Casanova. Where there was gambling into the night, there was Casanova. Where there were freethinking women and frothing champagne, there, too, was Casanova. The neglected son of a small-time actress, Giacomo Casanova embraced every form of disguise this city of masks had to offer. What began as bluster and luck—posing as physician to a decrepit senator named Bragadin, whose gondola he was sharing when the old man suffered a stroke—became for Casanova a lifelong masquerade. Bragadin recovered, grew convinced that Casanova had saved his life, and more or...

    • CHAPTER 2 New World
      (pp. 13-24)

      Giandomenico Tiepolo’s paintingThe Minuet(figure 4) captures carnival in a moment of sheer joy. There is a riot of costumes. Giant white hats tower above a pair of Pulcinella noses. A Turk’s striped turban rises nearby. A black-masked Arlecchino holds a baton over his shoulder, and women appear in full and half-masks. At the center a dancer in a gorgeous dress curtsies, lost in her own world and oblivious to her surroundings. She is either an actress in costume—as the lover Isabella from commedia dell’arte, for instance—or a simple girl done up for the occasion. Or maybe...

    • CHAPTER 3 Even Odds
      (pp. 25-29)

      After sundown, maskers not in a café or at the theater were likely to be in front of a table throwing dice or playing cards. Nowhere was the social mix greater than in the city’s gambling halls. Here agents of the Inquisitors, expert in penetrating the mask, regularly identified a wide assortment of types: patricians and noble ladies, merchants, Jews, foreign diplomats, vagabonds, prostitutes. Nowhere did the mingling carry more immediate consequences. This was a field where how much you won or lost depended on the sharpness of your wit, how well you judged your opponent, and the whim of...

    • CHAPTER 4 Blood Sport
      (pp. 30-34)

      The most popular daytime amusement during carnival’s closing week was a public sport composed of equal parts glee and gore.Caccie dei tori,“bull hunts,” were a refinement of games that dated back to Roman times. They had existed in one form or another throughout the thousand-year history of Venice. Almost always sponsored affairs, they were usually organized by Venetian patricians. They sometimes coincided with the visits of foreign sovereigns or other dignitaries. Occasionally nobles received permission to host a hunt for occasions outside of carnival. Despite their popularity, only on scattered rare occasions did the Venetians who flocked to...

    • CHAPTER 5 Fat Thursday
      (pp. 35-40)

      The climax of Venetian carnival came not on Tuesday but on the previous Thursday,giovedì grasso,nearly a week before the silence of Lent put an abrupt end to the long season of festivity. At its center was a lavish spectacle that brought all ranks together in common celebration. The staged events, repeated year after year, century after century, affirmed the Republic’s image and put the government’s own vision for the season front and center. The state-glorying pageant was high spirited, but it also employed pomp to keep hilarity firmly in check. Anything revelers might do after such a display...

    • CHAPTER 6 Anything Goes?
      (pp. 41-44)

      Assessments of carnival varied widely in the eighteenth century. The Frenchman Ange Goudar was unqualified in his judgment: “It isn’t only the rabble who give themselves over to debauchery,” he wrote. “All the classes are corrupted.”¹ But others, like the German Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, were disappointed to find in its oppressive crowds and dully similar costumes not the slightest hint of scandal: “Let’s conclude from this description that carnival here is infinitely below its reputation.”² Adjust the tone from boredom to quiet reserve (e.g., theGazzetta’s“admirable docility and gentleness”), and the experience of Archenholz comes close to the...

  6. PART TWO The Culture of Masking

    • CHAPTER 7 City of Masks
      (pp. 47-53)

      Throughout his affair with M. M., Casanova relied on the simple half-mask common in eighteenth-century Venice. During his trips to Murano, there was plenty to arouse suspicion—his unlikely devotion in the little chapel, his faithful presence in the convent’s visiting room, his regular visits to a certain green door at the top of the stairs. But there was one thing that would not have raised an eyebrow: his mask (figure 10).

      In Casanova’s day, virtually the whole of Venetian society wore masks as daily dress, and not just during carnival. For six months of the year, beginning in early...

    • CHAPTER 8 Infernal Associations
      (pp. 54-65)

      The earliest reference to masking in Venice dates from 1268, when the Great Council made it a crime to put on a mask and throw perfumed eggs. The absence of earlier references suggests that Venetians did not wear them commonly before the thirteenth century. If they had, surely someone would have been inspired to harass or cause harm, and prohibitions would have followed. What prompted masks now?

      There was one event early in the century whose impact on religion, commerce, and public affairs in the daily life of Venetians was immense: the defeat and sack of Constantinople in 1204 by...

    • CHAPTER 9 Devil’s Dance
      (pp. 66-78)

      In an early commedia dell’arte sketch, Harlequin is visited by his dead mother in a dream. She is a prostitute, unhappily stuck in Hades. She wants her son to retrieve her. Harlequin jumps out of bed, straps on his mask, tucks his wooden sword into his belt, and goes to the underworld. There he soothes the hell-hound Cerberus by scratching his belly and makes Charon laugh with his leaps and contortions. Pluto finds him so funny that he offers Harlequin anything he wants: chief torturer, deputy-god status, privileges in Hades’ kitchen. Harlequin sees his chance and names his mother. Pluto...

    • CHAPTER 10 Unmasking the Heart
      (pp. 79-85)

      For critics of commedia dell’arte, carnival masks and their spinoffs in the theater were part of a wider circle of wickedness that stretched from the concrete to the unseen. To them, there was a direct connection between hiding one’s face and covering one’s heart. Among those to explore this affiliation was Tomaso Garzoni, whose magnum opusThe Universal Assembly of All the Professions of the World, Noble and Ignoble(1585) claimed to describe every known occupation.¹ For Garzoni, the more obvious link that tied the mask to wrongdoing ran through carnival, when “innocent” pranks sowed seeds of corruption. A more...

    • CHAPTER 11 Age of Dissimulation
      (pp. 86-102)

      Traiano Boccalini’s lesson was closer to the experience of his contemporaries than sermons that preached pious transparency. As an anatomist of political power, Boccalini was at once fascinated and repulsed by what he saw. He was equally sensitive to its effects on rulers and the ruled. One of the serious points inNews from Parnassusis that the ambition of princes is seldom compatible with human freedom. In Boccalini’s view, the prerogatives rulers claim—to wage war, destroy internal enemies, and hold the monopoly on force—come at a high cost to their subjects. He remarked sardonically thatragion di...

  7. PART THREE The Honest Mask

    • CHAPTER 12 Legislating Morality
      (pp. 105-111)

      The discourse of honest masking was widespread when Venetians took up the mask as common attire. Its particular terms—what distinguished feigning from dissembling, for instance, or which circumstances might justify employing one or the other—were not likely to have been familiar to the great majority of Venetians, who did not live their lives guarding secrets that could put them at risk. They nevertheless understood and accepted its basic premises: that masks were not always sinful or demonic, that their use extended beyond commedia and carnival, and that they served purposes other than disguise. Honest masking had various sources,...

    • CHAPTER 13 Saving Face
      (pp. 112-128)

      To think of the mask of Venice as a defender of rank rather than a tool for disguise runs counter to a powerful line of interpretation stretching from the eighteenth century to our own time. The French traveler Ange Goudar, writing more than two hundred years ago, summed up the judgment. “For six months of the year, Venetians give themselves over to madness and extravagance, and so that they can do so more freely, the Republic allows them to disguise themselves.” One of today’s leading historians of dress in Venice, Doretta Davanzo Poli, describes eighteenth-century Venetians as having had a...

    • CHAPTER 14 Venetian Incognito
      (pp. 129-140)

      In mid-January 1782, a season when cold rains pelt the lagoon and the days alternate between brilliant sun and dark gloom, the Serenissima staged one of the century’s grandest parties for foreign guests. Officially, the visitors were known as Counts of the North. For a full week, from Friday morning until late Thursday night, the city was host to events that clogged the waterways, filled theaters for command performances, and drew thousands of Venetians to Piazza San Marco for a last bloody bull hunt. At their own request, the visitors arrived and toured in the “strictest incognito.” Participants in the...

    • CHAPTER 15 Democratizing Dress
      (pp. 141-152)

      For officials who monitored apparel in Venice, the changes in dress that ushered in the mask were part of a movement that constituted the greatest threat to the public identity of nobles in memory. The transformation was driven by nobles themselves, who, over the last third of the seventeenth century, exchanged the venerable toga for the capelike tabàro. This was met with strenuous objections from the Commissioners of Display. Their fears were well founded. The period marks the start of a series of internal political and social crises that would continue for more than a century, from which the patrician...

    • CHAPTER 16 Taming the Devil
      (pp. 153-166)

      Venetian audiences must have been stunned when they first encountered Carlo Goldoni’s Arlecchino. The character was nothing like the ridiculous figure who belched and groped his way through a century and a half of improvised skits. Instead he was substantial and oddly sober, with depth and personality and the capacity to feel sentiment. In Goldoni’s playJealous Women,Arlecchino is a working-class porter, honest with his masters, efficient in his rounds, and proud of his work. He is solicitous, polite, even a touch dull. And now, approaching the end of act II, he’s also feeling extremely awkward.

      Arlecchino has just...

  8. PART FOUR Carnival and Community

    • CHAPTER 17 Redeemed by the Blood
      (pp. 169-180)

      In late winter 1679, the Venetian Giovanni Corner staged a spectacle that linked images of renewal to the pressures of an empire beginning to come apart. The event was called an equestrian ballet. It was a masquerade on horseback that combined music, costumes, and symbolic killing in choreographed maneuvers. As an orchestra played, riders systematically pierced, stabbed, and shot their victims. Although it is unlikely that the participants thought of it quite so abstractly, the event was a highly refined version of an immemorial ritual, repeated for centuries each spring: rebirth through blood.

      Corner was among the more powerful patricians...

    • CHAPTER 18 Carnival Tales
      (pp. 181-191)

      Over the past few decades, the termcarnivalesquehas come to be shorthand for a theory of carnival set forth by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s bookRabelais and His Worldwas completed in 1940, published in the Soviet Union in 1965, and translated into English in 1968. According to Bakhtin, the ribald irreverence of the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais offered glimpses of authentic human freedom, a utopia still recoverable whenever carnival laughter unites the powerless in mockery and defiance. Since its publication,Rabelais and His Worldhas become a field guide to the season.

      Mikhail Bakhtin stands...

    • CHAPTER 19 The Mask of Sincerity
      (pp. 192-202)

      In the strange world of Venetian masking, where masks helped to preserve hierarchy by temporarily suspending it, the masking was by and large honest. Masks of course inspired acts of deception large and small. But their more common use was closer to dissembling than to feigning. Even for the Lauras of the city—the widow who sat alone in a café all afternoon—the mask was prudent and protective. It was “a veil of honest obscurity,” as Torquato Accetto had put it inOn Honest Dissimulation,rather than a cover for deceit.

      Officials grumbled about the equalizing effects of the...

    • CHAPTER 20 Carnival Contained
      (pp. 203-214)

      Carlo Goldoni’s playThe Maidservantsis set in the waning days of carnival. Several domestics arrange to meet at an inn for dancing and a meal. Zanetta is the noblewoman Dorotea’s servant, and she convinces Meneghina, a servant in another household, to join her and the others. Zanetta takes a dress from Dorotea’s closet for Meneghina to wear as a costume. No sooner have the two masked maidservants entered the inn than they are greeted by the patrician Raimondo, who scorns his wife but dotes on his neighbor Dorotea. Recognizing her dress, he begins to sweet-talk and flatter Zanetta. It...

    • CHAPTER 21 Bitter Ash
      (pp. 215-236)

      When the nineteenth century dawned in Venice, the widow Laura’s afternoon at the café Thistle seemed like ancient history. In a swift stroke, Napoleon had conquered the city with scarcely a shot. On May 12, 1797, under threat of imminent invasion and rumors of a planned bloodbath byVenetian revolutionaries, the Senate voted to dissolve the government. The Serenissima’s millennium of proud independence was over. Before the next carnival, among the welter of decrees from the tumultuous first year of the new order, would come an edict banning masks in cafés, streets, and other public places. With this, the small piece...

  9. EPILOGUE: After the Fall
    (pp. 237-244)

    Venice remains a city of masks. Masks greet visitors as they pour out of motorboats and buses. They line the vendors’ racks just outside the train station and along the terraced steps of the Rialto Bridge. There are masks on sticks, masks with ribbons, masks glued to jewelry boxes. Tiny refrigerator-magnet masks are sold alongside the bottled water in small shops. Postcards show dreamy maskers in gondolas. Paintings at high-end galleries place them in moonscapes and snow scenes. Masks inVenice come in all forms: as bottle openers, brooches, pieces of porcelain, and objets d’art.

    In a handful of workshops, carnival...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 245-286)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-304)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 305-308)
  13. Photo Credits
    (pp. 309-312)
  14. Index
    (pp. 313-317)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 318-318)