One of my favorite holidays is Mardi Gras. Or as other parts of the world call it, Carnival or in Italy- Carnevale! I enjoy participating in all of the various festivities the holiday brings. It has also been a research topic for me as an undergraduate and graduate student.
The holiday most likely got its start in Antiquity. Carnevale developed from the Greek and Roman festivals of Bacchanalia, (honoring the god Bacchus aka Dionysus, the god of wine and debauchery), Lupercalia, (honoring the god Pan, the god of all that is wild and fertility), and Saturnalia, (honoring Saturn, the god of plenty and time). It initially spread with the Romans as their empire expanded across Europe. The festivals were combined into one celebration after Catholic leaders adopted them into the Christian holiday schedule leading up to the Lenten season. This adoption gave the holiday its immortal life around the world. It thrived during the Middle Ages and Renaissance then migrated to the Americas with French explorers and Spanish conquistadors. It particularly took root in the U.S. South and Brazil.
Carnevale is traditionally a time of celebration, excess, licentiousness, impulsiveness, and sexual deviance. The tradition of disguise at this time of year is steeped in politics in addition to allowing folks to have fun. From Antiquity through the eighteenth century, the holiday was the one time of year the common man could publicly critique the ruling class and church officials. Additionally, women could freely challenge patriarchal social structure by dressing and behaving like men. Any other time of year these behaviors could bring harsh reprimands or enact criminal penalties against those who did such things. While I am keeping it light in this post, it is only fair to share that Mardi Gras also has a dark legacy that includes riots, discrimination, and unfortunate deaths.
I have attended Mardi Gras celebrations throughout the US. But, I have always wanted to experience the Venetian version of the holiday. My 2013 semester abroad allowed me to check Venetian Carnevale off my Dematury Plan. For those wondering what a dematurity plan is, you can read more about it here. Back to Venezia and Carnevale!
Venice is awe-inspiring any time of year. But during Carnevale the city takes on a whole different life. When surrounded by folks in ornate masks and lavish costumes, the imagination runs wild. The period gowns and men’s suits make it very easy to envision similar celebrations that occurred centuries earlier around the turquoise canals. After seeing the opening events in person, I couldn’t think of a more perfect back drop for Grace and Dante to cross paths once again.
Carnevale allows Dante to unabashedly be the connoisseur of wine and women that he is in one of two places he is comfortable enough to let his guard down. Dante was born and raised in Venezia during the Renaissance. He grew up navigating the waters of the lagoon with his “fisherman/troubadour father” and his mother was a seamstress by trade. While he was a commoner in his youth, he eventually rises through Venice’s ranks after he poses as a newly-minted marquee who gains the title through his work for the Doges. Rumors float around the city that the “Marchese” grows his wealth as a merchant participating in trade along the old Silk Road in addition to being a mercenary for hire. (The actual truth is Dante invents the Marchese and all the rumors, so he can hide amongst the humans of his hometown when he needs a break from being a Horseman.) Throughout the Four Horsemen series, frequent comparisons are drawn between Dante and Giacomo Casanova, another famous Venetian, who also had a reputation for romantic scandal, gambling, and misadventures.
The costume Dante wears at Istria’s ball is made from black velvet and trimmed with gold accents along with his custom mask. The material and colors tie him to Venice’s guilds and legacy of distinctive extravagance. Lucchesi refugees migrated to Venice in the fourteenth century bringing their trade of velvet weaving with them. During the Renaissance, Venetian velvet emerges as the highest quality and most sought-after velvet in Europe. Prior to this time, Venezia’s textile trade mainly consisted of silk manufacturing. Mask making was also formalized as a trade with the rise of the Guild of Decorators during this same period of time. Demand for Venetian masks grew, not only for Carnevale, but for theater and other events throughout Europe.
Gold is used throughout many structures as a display of Venice’s wealth. The golden mosaics and gold leaf throughout St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice highlight the prestige and riches of Venice’s leading residents in addition to celebrating the greatness of God. Gold leaf adorns the Venetian Custom House and structural aspects of the Doge’s Palace along with the artwork contained within its walls. Venice’s emblem is the golden winged lion of St. Mark. From an ancestry stand point, Dante’s family coat of arms includes the colors of black and gold. Additionally, the Four Horsemen attire themselves in black uniforms with gold insignias.
Grace’s dress and mask are also gold in color, trimmed in cream lace, gold ribbon, emeralds, and pearls to mirror and contrast with Dante. After all, she is the enemy sent to relieve Dante of a sacred relic he carries with him in Venice. The gold color provides the illusion that she is on equal footing with him, and of course, the rich color catches his eye. The pearls and emeralds hint at her connections to the immortal realm and sea. Pearls have historically been symbols of virtue and integrity; including them in her costume creates a fun symbolic contradiction between how Grace behaves at the ball and her true nature. Hiding behind a mask allows Grace to embrace the seductive persona she invents to ensnare Dante’s attention. It also provides her a much-needed sense of security. With her face concealed, she believes she might actually get away with fooling the immortal Horseman and escape Venice unscathed.
It’s amazing what a costume, merriment, and a little bit of vino can bring out in us all at certain times of year. I know I can get a little more rambunctious or free-spirited than normal, especially when wandering the canals of Venice in a cloak and mask, or shouting “throw me something, mister” on the streets of New Orleans and Metairie.