Prosecco is perhaps the most famous Italian wine outside Italy today, with the possible exception of Chianti. It seems that people can’t get enough of it. Before the 1990s, it was relatively unknown but, in the last five years, sales have outstripped those of Champagne, making it the world’s most popular sparkling wine.
In medieval Venice, 2 February, Candlemas or the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, was the date of the Festa delle Marie (Festival of the Marys), one of the most important official events of the carnival.
As we saw in the last post, on 31 January, twelve rich families from around the city exhibited a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, richly adorned in clothes and jewels, in their palazzi. On 2 February, these would be taken in a grand waterborne procession to the church of San Pietro in Castello, which until 1797 was the cathedral of Venice. Here they would enter the church for a mass with the Patriarch (the archbishop) of Venice before once again being carried by boat, this time with the Patriarch, to the Riva degli Schiavoni. From here they would be carried into the Basilica San Marco for a mass with the Doge. After mass, the Doge, Patriarch and Marys would get back on the boats and the procession would go up the Grand Canal to Rialto and then up side canals to Santa Maria Formosa where there would be a third and final mass.
The statues of Mary became known as Marioni, ‘big Marys’, and it’s said that small replicas were on sale as souvenirs during the festival. These were known as ‘little Marys’ or Marionette, which is where the modern word for a string puppet comes from.
Since it took place at carnival time, the festival could get quite rowdy. The night before, young men from the families often paraded their Mary through the streets showing off how it was more lavishly decorated than those of the other families, which often ended in fist fights. In 1339 a law was passed banning the throwing of fruit and vegetables at the statues, suggesting that the whole thing had degenerated into a game of skittles. In 1379, Venice went to war with Genoa and every available penny was needed for the war effort. The government took this as the opportunity to abolish the festival once and for all. All that remained in future years was an annual visit by the Doge to Santa Maria Formosa for a simple mass.
More than a hundred years later, a myth was created to explain why there had been such a festival. It involved a story in which every year, the state would sponsor the weddings of twelve poor girls at the cathedral of San Pietro in Castello. One year, the brides with their dowries were kidnapped by pirates from Trieste. The whole city mobilized and gave chase, but the brides (and their dowries) were eventually rescued by the casselleri (cabinet makers) of the parish of Santa Maria Formosa. As this story only appears in the Renaissance, it is clear that it was invented to explain the festival and that the Marys had always been made of wood and represented the Virgin Mary.
In recent years a modern Festa delle Marie, which follows the myth rather than the historical version, has become part of the official Venice carnival. It involves a beauty contest for twelve Venetian girls who are carried from San Pietro in Castello to the Piazza San Marco before one is crowned the Maria of the year. This year it will take place tomorrow, February 3.
The picture at the top of this page is of an antiques shop in the Dorsoduro district of Venice, near the Accademia. The statues are eighteenth-century clothes mannequins, but for me they are very evocative of the original Festa delle Marie. They appear as ghostly reflections, projected onto the walls of the city, memories of the festival that once was.
Like all carnivals, the Venetian Carnival started as a popular festival in which the people were allowed to let off steam by behaving in ways that they would not have been allowed to outside the period. However, from the earliest times, the Venetian government sought to control the festival and they did this by incorporating large-scale official events into the programme.
During the time of the Venetian Republic (up to 1797), the 31 January was a very important feast as it was the day in which the arrival of the body of Saint Mark in the city was celebrated. According to tradition, in 828 two Venetian merchants—Bono de Torcello and Rustico de Malamocco— who were illegally trading with the muslim city of Alexandria in Egypt, stole the body of the saint from that city to mollify the wrath of the Doge on their return to Venice. It is said that they covered the body with pork, forbidden meat to muslims, in order to deter the authorities from inspecting their cargo on leaving. Their plan worked and Doge Giustiano Participazio was so overjoyed by the arrival of the body that he ordered the building of Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Mark ousted San Todaro as the patron of the city.
In Medieval times, the feast fell right in the middle of the carnival period, which ran from 26 December until Ash Wednesday, and the celebrations were incorporated into the official carnival festivities. Every year, two parishes (or contrade) of Venice were chosen on a rotation basis to lead the festivities. On 30 January, these two contrade would organize processions around the Piazza San Marco to the church of Santa Maria Formosa, where dowry money would be distributed, at the expense of the rich residents of each contrada, to large groups young girls from poor families who wanted to get married.
The next day two more processions would be organized around the Piazza. One contrada would have a priest dressed as the Virgin Mary and another a priest dressed as the Archangel Gabriel. These two priests would come together on a stage and sing a song of praise to the Doge. All participants would again process to the Church of Santa Maria Formosa where there would be a mystery play of the Annunciation (when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she was carrying Jesus) followed by a mass.
In the evening, six rich noble families in each of the two contrada (twelve in total) would open up their palazzi to the public to display a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary lavishly dressed and decorated in jewels at the family’s expense. The statues then became the centre of a parties. They would also, on 2 February, be used in the Festa delle Marie, (the festival of the Marys). I’ll be writing about that on 2 February.
The picture at the top of this page, by Jacopo Tintoretto, depicts the body of Saint Mark being stolen from Alexandria by Bono and Rustico. The place in which this is happening, bears a certain resemblance to the Piazza San Marco, with the now demolished Church of San Gimignano at the far end.
Tomorrow, 27 January 2018, is the official start of what is probably the most famous carnival in the world, the Carnevale di Venezia. Soon the calli and campi will be full of people, mostly tourists and mostly French, sporting costumes ranging from the outlandish to the opulent, and posing for photographs evocative of the final century of the Venetian Republic.
People are already warning of overcrowding, but I have to say that compared to July, the city usually isn’t that overcrowded, save for the days on which big events are planned. And I do enjoy seeing the costumes, many of them made by artisans here in Venice, outside the shop windows where they live for the rest of the year.
Carnival is a European tradition which dates back to ancient times. It’s thought to derive from the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia. Nowadays, the word has come to refer to any large costume festival—such as the Notting Hill Carnival in London—and in the USA the word is often used to mean a funfair. But in Europe it means the festival that takes place between Christmas and Lent, the latter being the period in which christians observe austerity for forty days and forty nights.
In Medieval times, Carnival in Europe became a period of misrule, in which people were allowed, unofficially, to get away with pretty much anything. The institutions of church and state were often mocked openly and people overindulged in public. The tradition of wearing masks developed so that people could go about their carnival behaviour incognito, without fear of retribution from the authorities come Lent. In a time when most of the continent was ruled by kings, who could not be removed at elections, this was part of the social contract: the people could let off steam and mock authority for a few weeks a year in return for obedience and public order for the rest of it.
The origins of the word itself are as obscure as the origins of the festival. The most likely explanation, however, is that it derives from the latin phrase carnem levare, ‘taking away meat’. This refers to the fact that during Lent christians fasted and were forbidden from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products in particular.
Carnival is of special importance to me. When I was at University my bachelor’s dissertation was entitled Carnival in Renaissance Venice through the diaries of Marin Sanudo. This is how I first became acquainted with this most fascinating record of Venetian renaissance life.
Over the next few weeks I will be bringing you pictures and reports from this year’s carnival as well as giving you some of the history of the Venetian Carnival, particularly during the medieval and renaissance periods.