"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. In Venice 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.
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About the Author
James H. Johnson is Professor of History at Boston University and the author of the award-winning book, Listening in Paris (UC Press).
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Masks in the Serene Republic
By James H. Johnson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
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 less adopted him. A reckless gambler unafraid of the high-stakes lie, Casanova had struck it rich. Before his big break, Casanova had earned his wages as a mediocre fiddler in a pit orchestra. Now he had the means to transform his roots.
"I hate deceit," Casanova confides to readers in his sprawling History of My Life. The truth was that his life consisted of little else. He traveled under assumed names—Farusi, Vetturi—before eventually settling on Seingalt and bestowing upon himself the honorific title of chevalier. He changed his wardrobe to suit his serial selves, from a priest's cassock, to the fussy ornaments of rings, medals, ribbons, and watch-chains, to a soldier's uniform that matched that of no known army. He duped patrons with sham numerology and black magic, forged currency, and brought scores of women to bed with the claim that each was the greatest love of his life. The same supreme confidence that had convinced Bragadin earned Casanova private audiences with kings and philosophers: with Frederick the Great, Louis XV, and the Empress Catherine of Russia; with Pope Clement XIII, who granted him membership in the Order of the Holy Spur; and with Rousseau and Voltaire. By the prime of his life, the Chevalier de Seingalt had successfully erased his past.
Tall, dark-skinned, and muscular, highly polite and even a touch pedantic, old-fashioned in his politics, a gifted storyteller, credulous about the incredible but in religious matters a skeptic, Casanova was a force to be reckoned with. Yet by his own telling, his will had little to do with his rise. On the contrary. It was seldom clear to this master of improvisation what the next step would be. Nor should it have been. "We are but thinking atoms, which move where the wind drives them," he wrote. "Hence anything important that happens to us in this world is only what is bound to happen to us." This is a startling sentiment for someone who defied his origins to move in the highest circles. Following the script of eighteenth-century materialism—a philosophy that likened thought to the careening ricochet of billiard balls—Casanova resigned his life's authorship to Fate. He accordingly undertook to maximize pleasure, minimize loss, and draw whatever lessons, moral or otherwise, his senses might teach.
An encounter with the fifteen-year-old Rosalie, a pious chambermaid in an Avignon brothel, gives him occasion to reflect on ultimate truths. "She devoured me with kisses, and, in short, she made me happy; and since in this life nothing is real except the present, I enjoyed it, dismissing the images of the past and loathing the darkness of the always dreadful future, for it offers nothing certain except death, ultima linea rerum." If you asked any foreigner in eighteenth century to describe Venetian carnival, you would likely hear words that applied to Giacomo Casanova, too. It was about forgetting the past and suspending the future, escaping behind the blankness of the mask, minding the muse of pleasure. Carnival, the reveler might continue, was about transforming the self.
It is therefore no surprise that on the last day of carnival, 1754, Casanova was behind a mask, having the time of his life. He would later write that this was one of his happiest moments. Not long before, he had begun an affair with the nun M. M. Her convent was on Murano, the small clump of islands in the lagoon known principally for glassmaking. There was to be a dance in the parlor for the entertainment of the ladies, who were now beginning to gather behind the latticed screens. The scene was improbable, as clowns, peasants, Turks, and pirates spilled out of gondolas in a headlong scramble for the holy ground. Some took inspiration from commedia dell'arte. In his Pierrot costume, Casanova was, as usual, going against the grain. The figure was French, not Italian, a docile simpleton who serenades by moonlight. Casanova wore a baggy white tunic, with loose sleeves and trousers that touched his heels. A large hat covered his ears, and a gauze mask hid his eyes and nose. Provided one wasn't a hunchback or lame, Casanova said, there was no costume better suited for disguise. Not even an intimate would recognize him.
With the ball now at full tilt, Casanova watched as M. M. and the other nuns laughed at him. He danced with clumsy abandon, keeping to Pierrot's character as a boob, blundering through the room, suddenly falling asleep and waking with a start, crashing into other maskers and bumped roughly in return. A nimble Harlequin chased him and, from nowhere, a Punch tripped him hard. Casanova grabbed a leg, wrestled Punch to the floor, and knocked his false hump loose. The crowd cheered, and Casanova streaked from the convent and jumped into a waiting gondola, which took him to the churning sea of revelers in Pizza San Marco.
Shrove Tuesday in Venice, martedì grasso, marked the end of the popular celebrations with balls, dinners, and spontaneous dancing in the narrow alleys and packed public squares. The city's official celebration was the previous Thursday, giovedì grasso, when maskers of every social class assembled near the basilica and a procession of government officials marched onto the balcony of the ducal palace. Together they watched the same scripted events that Venetians standing in that very spot had seen each giovedì grasso for nearly half a millennium. Acrobats risked death on ropes overhead, sword dancers leapt and tumbled, wooden castles were destroyed with clubs, and bulls were beheaded.
The final fling came on Tuesday. Maskers poured into the piazza and along the Zattere to dance with strangers. The winding route between San Stefano and St. Mark's was clogged and virtually impassable. Shrove Tuesday was also the last night of the season for the city's theaters, which staged their best works, hoping for a sellout. Gamblers spilled out of their dens and into the streets, settling scores, nursing wounds, trying to get home safely with their gains. Inside the overcrowded cafés, where the roar grew deafening and the heat was stifling, breathing under the mask was a labor.
As Casanova slipped back to Venice in the waning hours of this martedì grasso, he had cause to smile about his disguise. Now fully into his affair with M. M., there was still the problem of C. C., another nun at the convent. She, too, had been watching from behind the grate and had laughed at his antics.
Five months earlier, C.C.'s father had sent her to the convent. She was fourteen and, with the help of a mask, had gone on long walks with Casanova throughout the city, to the opera, to the gambling hall, and eventually to a rented room on the narrow strip of land called the Guidecca. Casanova had assured her that they were married "before God." Asking her father for her hand was a mere formality, he had said. Casanova didn't get the chance. Suddenly C. C. found herself behind the convent's walls, and with that Casanova found religion, joining a handful of lay worshipers in the order's small chapel in hopes of glimpsing her.
It was during his pilgrimage that M. M. noticed him. One evening as Casanova boarded his gondola for Venice, a note was dropped at his feet proposing that he come to the parlor in a mask. Two days later, he was on his way back to Murano in a spacious two-oared vessel with a Countess S., named in the note as a confidant of its author. Both were masked; they spoke of the weather. Casanova could scarcely contain himself. What could the note's farewell—itwas signed"your loving friend"—possibly signify? Did she know the real reason for his piety?
Casanova remained masked as they sat down before the screen. When the countess asked for the nun by name, he was astounded by its eminence. Casanova studied M. M. as the women talked. She did not once look in his direction. M. M. was a perfect beauty, he would write, noble and shy, with two rows of magnificent teeth, chestnut eyebrows, and moist lips. "Sure that I should possess her in a few days, I enjoyed the pleasure of paying her the tribute of desiring her."
Furtive notes followed, carried by surrogates. The two met, first at the grate and later at a small apartment nearby. Casanova eventually learned that the rooms belonged to the French ambassador, François de Bernis. A favorite at Versailles, the abbé de Bernis was posted to the city in 1752 with instructions to take special note of what lessons the Serenissima's steady decline ("decadence" was the word the ministers had used) held for France. "The Republic has suffered the sad effects of an ambition that may well exhaust its resources and bring about its utter ruin," the brief read. Diplomats were already saying what is now conventional wisdom: that the catastrophic loss of southern Greece to the Ottoman Turks thirty-five years earlier, formalized in the Treaty of Passarowitz, had sealed the fate of this once-great empire. Venice would henceforth be an observer, and not a broker, of world events.
De Bernis's work did not prevent him from tasting the city's pleasures. Soon after his arrival, he acquired a mistress of elevated birth and furnished their love nest, the casino (little house) on Murano, with the latest styles. This was a luxury cultivated by the wealthiest Venetians. At the time of the Republic's fall in 1797, the authorities counted some 130 casini, the largest number of which were situated near Piazza San Marco. A pied-à-terre in one's own city, the casino was a quiet retreat from the loud cafés: for private dinners and conversation, for politicking or plotting, and for personal business that required discretion. The government was understandably concerned about them, not only for political reasons. In the eighteenth century, it periodically closed casini for offenses against morality.
Casanova came to know the ambassador's casino well. It had three rooms, an ample fireplace, and a library stocked with works attacking religion, all of them from France and all forbidden. The ambassador kept a collection of pornographic engravings, which included Gervaise de Latouche's Portier des Chartreux and the Elegantiae latini sermonis of Johannes Meursius. Only after numerous visits to the apartment, and the bouts of athletic lovemaking they inevitably brought, did Casanova learn of one additional extravagance. Just off the main room was a secret alcove that permitted de Bernis to watch his guests through small holes drilled into the ornate woodwork. The ambassador had been a silent witness to their sessions, M.M. informed Casanova, and he hoped to see more.
The revelation led Casanova to find a casino of his own, which he rented through the English ambassador's former cook. It was already furnished "for the sake of love, good food, and every kind of pleasure." It included a bedroom, a dressing room, and an English-style water closet. A revolving dumbwaiter connected the main room to the kitchen so that meals could be enjoyed without seeing one's servants. There was a grand marble fireplace, a large chandelier, and mirrors set at propitious angles. Coupling nudes were painted on Chinese tiles, which hung on the walls. The arrangements were worthy of a patrician, Casanova remarked. Here, as elsewhere, he was playing the part to perfection.
As a Venetian, and one whose tastes ran to the forbidden in ideas as well as actions, Casanova knew that his habits strayed toward the far edge of the law. One evening as he left the Murano chapel, he saw another masker dressed in a tabàro and baùta following him. He got into a gondola bound for Venice. The masker did likewise, disembarking just behind Casanova near the Church of the Apostoli. Casanova ran him down, pressed a knife to his throat, and demanded to know what he wanted. Others approached, and the masker fled.
The man was probably working for the State Inquisition, a secretive councilwhose army of informants brought back daily reports about who was doing what with whom. One such report, now housed in the archives of the State Inquisitors, named the patrician Marco Donà, a contemporary of Casanova's, as a libertine, atheist, and sodomite. In fact, it was not long after Casanova's affair with M. M. ended that an agent named Manuzzi feigned an interest in purchasing his books and, on the pretext of taking them to an expert for appraisal, presented the Inquisitors with the collection. Along with Ariosto, Horace, and Petrarch, there wereworks on magic and the Kabbalah, formulas for conjuring the devil, and a fair sampling of pornography. Casanova was imprisoned in a scorching cell beneath the roof of the ducal palace on charges of blasphemy, sorcery, and atheism. His dramatic escape fifteen months later secured his status as an international celebrity. For the rest of his days he charmed polite society all over Europe with its retelling, a performance that took approximately two hours.
The tabàro and baùta, the dress of the likely agent trailing Casanova, was standard attire for eighteenth-century maskers. It consisted of an encompassing black cloak that men wore over their coats and breeches and a close-fitting hood that encircled the face and hid the neck. A white half-mask of waxed carton that extended to just below the nose was normally worn with it. The mask, or larva, was wedged against the forehead by a three-cornered hat (figure 1). Women wore the tabàro and baùta over flowing skirts. When they went hatless, they wore an oval morèta, a black mask made of velvet or lace. This they held in place by clenching a small button between their teeth, which made speaking impossible. A jewel sometimes adorned the women's morèta, "glittering on the outside," a traveler noted, "to accompany the Sparkling of their Eyes" (figure 2).
The mask gave M. M. the freedom to visit Casanova outside her convent. One evening, he waited for her near the equestrian statue before the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. A masker approached, slowed, and began circling him. Expecting to be robbed, Casanova tensed. A hand advanced—open, empty, a gesture of peace—and Casanova suddenly saw that it was M. M. in the clothes of a man, complete with breeches, tabàro and baùta, the white half-mask, and a tricorn. Her gift for disguise extended to other details. Casanova later emptied her pockets, which contained a snuffbox, a case of toothpicks, a scented handkerchief, two fine watches, and a pair of English flintlock pistols. The cook had prepared game, sturgeon, truffles, oysters, boiled eggs, and anchovies, all served on Saxon porcelain. They drank burgundy, champagne, and rum-laced punch. Volcanic lovemaking followed.
On another visit, M.M. came dressed in a full skirt instead of breeches and wearing an oval morèta instead of the larva. The couple went to the Ridotto, Venice's famed gambling hall near Piazza San Marco. M. M. layed recklessly, unlucky at first but then winning big. Her luck drew the attention of onlookers. Nobles approached to congratulate her. Gamblers of every social class came to the Ridotto, and, apart from the barefaced patricians who held the bank at each table, most others were masked. This did not necessarily mean that identities were unknown, either to gamblers or to the Inquisitors' agents who were fixtures in the candlelit chambers. Given M. M.'s holy vows and Casanova's low birth, it would be unfortunate for either to be seen here in the company of the other. Casanova began to feel that they were being watched and grew increasingly uneasy. In an instant, they were out the door and moving across the dark waters in a gondola. "This is the way to escape from busybodies in Venice," Casanova wrote.
M. M. receives more attention than any of the roughly 120 other lovers Casanova describes in his memoirs, in large part because she was a kindred spirit. She at once embraced and rejected the reigning order, sincere in devotion but renegade in her vows. "I did not begin to love God until I had rid myself of the idea of him which religion had given me," she says. Casanova writes that he was never sure whether she was a libertine posing as a believer or a believer posing as a libertine. He therefore calls her both. When she comes to him in her nun's habit, she is "disguised as a saint." When she leaves the convent surreptitiously in street clothes, she is "very well masked, as a woman." Casanova gave the same gloss on a scene of passion with M. M. when they were still meeting in the ambassador's casino on Murano. They tumble onto a small couch, still mostly clothed. M. M. is wearing the habit, and Casanova is in the masker's tabàro and baùta. Such was the picture of their love, Casanova writes, "sketched out, executed in flesh and blood, and finished off by the great painter, all-wise Nature, who, inspired by love, could never paint another either truer or more interesting." Such was his animating creed: the truth of the mask.
Excerpted from Venice Incognito by James H. Johnson. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Part 1 The Carnival of Venice
1 Casanova's Carnival 3
2 New World 13
3 Even Odds 25
4 Blood Sport 30
5 Fat Thursday 35
6 Anything Goes? 41
Part 2 The Culture of Masking
7 City of Masks 47
8 Infernal Associations 54
9 Devil's Dance 66
10 Unmasking the Heart 79
11 Age of Dissimulation 86
Part 3 The Honest Mask
12 Legislating Morality 105
13 Saving Face 112
14 Venetian Incognito 129
15 Democratizing Dress 141
16 Taming the Devil 153
Part 4 Carnival and Community
17 Redeemed by the Blood 169
18 Carnival Tales 181
19 The Mask of Sincerity 192
20 Carnival Contained 203
21 Bitter Ash 215
Epilogue: After the Fall 237
Photo Credits 309
What People are Saying About This
"Refreshingly well-written and thought-provoking."Art Newspaper
"Comprehensively researched, insightful reconsideration of the function of masks and masking. . . . Highly recommended."Choice
"Perceptive, gracefully written, and well-illustrated. . . . A vivid introduction to Venetian culture."Journal of Modern History