Sunday, February 22, 2009

Arrive-bear-ci Italia!

Friday was our last full day in Italy and I wanted to leave the country with a bang - and what better way than to dress up and visit Venice's Carnevale! Of course, as a former international fashion model and current Freelance Goodwill Ambassador, everyone wanted me to pose with them for a photo op so it took me ages to navigate my way to and around San Marco's. I really can't blame them, I suppose - I did have a pretty spiffy mask.

If you remember, last month my female god bipedal attendant had spent hours scouring Venice for just the right bear-size mask (now I know how Goldilocks felt looking for that perfect bowl of porridge), and after a lot of misses, we found one that fit and set off my brown eyes. I confess that it was a little heavy and I needed a Bayer (bear!) aspirin by the end of the day but, at the risk of sounding vain, I think it quite becomes me. Too bad my female bipedal attendant was too lazy - I mean, busy for someone unemployed - to sew me a proper. Then again, I've seen her with a needle and thread. Not a pretty sight.

Anyway, Carnevale or Ca
rnival as we would say, is the two week festival which ends at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, the night before Ash Wednesday - the first day of the dreary month of Lent. Lots of masks, costumes, revelry and to the best of my knowledge, only one bear.

The origin of the word itself is disputed amongst People with Big Brains, although pretty much everyone agrees that the "carne" part refers to the Latin word for meat. The expression may refer to the cart used in a procession for the ancient god Apollo, or it may come from the phrase carne levare ("to remove meat") since Christians couldn't eat meat during Lent.

Two other theories suggest that it means farewell ("vale") to meat (as in chopped sirloin) or farewell to the flesh (as in the lovely ladies' cleavage you see, above right photo), giving Carnival a much racier tone. Personally, I like the idea of it being a celebration of wild debauchery - parts of carnival definitely date back to the lusty Saturnalia and Bacchanalia festivals in pagan times - but I suspect it was a way of saying bye-bye to beef. You Christians suck the fun out of everything.

Anyway, the first recorded Carnival in Venice
was back in 1268. At that time, people were allowed to wear their masks as early as the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26th) but they had to be removed by midnight on Shrove Tuesday. There were lots of other times of the year people could wear masks (adding up to almost 6 months in total), so Venice's mask makers (mascherari) were very busy, becoming quite powerful and eventually had their own guild, a spiffy statute of their own, and formed their own laws. I don't know what the laws were about: maybe how many sequins you could sew on a mask.

Traditionally, the mascherari made their masks from leather or from papier-mâché and were often relatively simple in design. Now they are fashioned mainly from gesso (a mixture made from calcium carbonate) and are very ornate.

There are different
classes of masks: the bauta, the moretta and the larva. The heavily gilded bauta covers the entire face and has no mouth, although mascherari will make a shorter version to allow its wearer to talk, eat & sip a cocktail or two without having to remove the mask. Often criminals and star-struck lovers used this style of mask because it offered the wearer so much anonymity.

The moretta was worn primarily by gentlewomen when they visited convents. It was made from black velvet - a stunning combination on any woman (oops! - that's the former international fashion model in me again) - and often had a veil attached to it. It was held on by biting onto a small bit or button at the back of the mask with the teeth. What we do for fashion! Some people think that women were forced to wear them by their husbands because they talked too much - the thought of which drives my female bipedal attendant to distraction.

By the 18th century, it wa
s common for ladies and gentleman to use bauta and moretta masks to conceal their identities as they lost the family fortune in Venice's gambling houses or sipped coffee in its coffee houses! How risqué, no?

The larva (Latin for "ghost") is usually white (see the top photo in today's post) and usually worn with a tricorn hat and black cape - this ensemble is quintessentially Venetian. The mask itself is made out of waxed cloth and are very comfortable, and like the bauta, perfect for eating and drinking. And flirting. Personally, the larva mask gives me the creeps.

My mask is a variation of the Scaramouche mask - based on the famous Spanish captain by the same name. Scaramouche beat an entire army of Turks and then carried back the beard of the Sultan as a trophy. I wish I had had a cape, high boots and a sword to go with my mask. I think I may enrol my female bipedal attendant in some sewing classes at the Learning Annex whenever we get home.

Beginning in the 14th
century, rival intercity gangs were encouraged to fight each other - usually over one of the city's many bridges. The games - often involving fists and canes - commemorated various events in Venice's history or celebrated Venetian virtues (I guess Venetian virtues involved fists and canes). They had names like the Dance of the Moor and Decapitating of the Bull and the Machine of the Flames. I bet that Moor wasn't just "dancing". Why are you humans so violent?

With so much going on - I always seemed to be at the centre of attention - and what with all those cameras and flashes going off, I had to take a short break and refresh myself with a bellini. The bellini is Venice's own cocktail - although they take credit for the spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeessss) as well.

It was created some time between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Harry's Bar in Venice. It got its name because the pinkish colour reminded Cipriani of the colour of a saint's toga in a painting by the artist Bellini - who was also a Venetian. I don't know if the saint was Venetian though - I'd have to check into his "virtues". With the likes of Hemingway, Orson Welles & Lewis Sinclair all clinking glasses in Harry's Bar, the drink would eventually be introduced to the world. And the rest they say is history.

The cocktail itself is made from Proseco (Italian sparkling wine) and white peach purée (traditionally the peaches should be marinated in wine
first) and its signature pink colour is the happy result of a splash of rasp(bear)berry or cherry juice. Like everything else in Italy, there are lots of regional variations of the drink. Mine though was particularly lovely even if I did cheat and get it from a bottle.

With all the fun associated with Carnival, it's bizarre to think that when the fun-loving Austrians took control of Venice
in 1798, the festival fell into decline. In fact, it would take almost 200 years - in the late 70's) to resurrect and revitalize Carnevale. The fact that the equally fun-loving Fascists outlawed it in the 1930's probably didn't help too much.

I decided to end the day by taking my bipedal attendant
s and god bipedal attendants to the Hard Rock Cafe which just opened in Venice. We went 2 weeks ago, but the restaurant had yet to open - something about the proper people not being available to make the necessary inspections. Sounds like a lot of palms waiting to be greased if you ask me.

Anyway, the people at the gift shop, which of course was open, said that the restaurant should be open by Carnevale. And of course, it wasn't. But I did get to meet two of my biggest groupies who insisted on having a photo taken with me. I don't think it'll be framed and displayed in the restaurant (if it ever opens!) because I'm a lowly Freelance Goodwill Ambassador - not a rock star. In any case, on that note, I'll bid a fond arrivederci to Italy and send big bear hugs to my god bipedal attendants who were so gracious to me and even put up with my whining, freeloading bipedal attendants.



Anonymous said...

Mr. Grey Bear
It sounds like your last day in Italy was a blazing success. How lucky you were to spend it in Venice at Carnevale time. I was there this time last year and like you I bought a mask too. Mine is a golden cat face, all glittery and very beautiful. Also like you I had a Bellini cocktail. How civilized they are! I'm looking forward to your next adventure.
You truly are an internation bear of distinction.

Grey Bear said...

Hi Anonymous: I feel that I was very lucky to experience Carnevale. It was a lo of fun - although the bellinis may have helped. Have you ever tried making a bellini in your home? - you could find a recipe on he internet and use sparkling wine.

I'd love to see your cat mask - could you send me a photo some time?