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Behind the mask at Mardi Gras
By Melody Amsel-Arieli

Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” in French), a pre-Lenten festival, is marked by lavish feasting, mischievous street parties, balls, merrymaking, and masquerading. Its roots, however, date back to pagan times, when fests celebrated the arrival of spring.

In ancient Rome, these boisterous debaucheries were integrated into Roman Catholic observance. In time, other European cities embraced this high-spirited tradition as well — each in its own way.

Today, after centuries of decline, the Carnival of Venice is flourishing anew. For two weeks a year, musicians, acrobats, and dancers enliven its plazas, bridges, and maze of narrow streets, while lavishly costumed revelers impersonate whomever their hearts desire. Masqueraders, under the cloak of anonymity, can , as of old, enjoy adventures, clandestine romance, and hush-hush intrigue. Rich can be poor, wives can be courtesans, and cads can be dashing cavaliers.

Venetian masks, once worn to evade class and social restraints, are among the city’s most colorful creations. They are also popular souvenirs. Year round, peering out from nearly every corner and kiosk of the city, they dazzle and delight.

Modern masks, explains Mario Belloni, owner of Ca’Macana Workshops in Venice, are no longer hand crafted from lace, leather, waxed cloth, or canvas, but from papier mache. Since traditional techniques had been lost in time, he adds, “re-discovering how to make them was a real adventure.”

Today, after sculpting a clay model, Ca’Macana craftsmen fill it with thin plaster paste. When hardened and freed, this newly created master-mold is coated with Vaseline, lined with multiple layers of paper, then dried. Once the resulting lightweight, smooth, flexible mask is extracted, its eyes “opened,” and its surface prepared, it is decorated. Scores of masks, in addition to acrylics, fur, fabric, or feathers, may feature gold leaf, glitter, Swarovski crystals, bits of macramé lace, stucco, and Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt. Each is one-of-a-kind.

In addition to handcrafting modern confections, Ca’Macana craftsmen also re-create authentic historical favorites. The classic, black or white, full-face bauta mask, traditionally paired with a black, three-cornered hat and long, hooded cape, for example, evokes the city’s historic aristocracy. Despite its grotesque, stark appearance, its square, prominent jaw is comfortable, allowing all to freely talk, eat, and drink. Still, it offers total concealment. In fact, kings and princes considered this ghost-like “apparition” an ideal disguise, because it allowed them to wander the city without being recognized. The volto, a simple, full-face mask, though resembling the bauta, is far heavier and fits far more closely. So it must be removed for eating and drinking. Modern voltos and bautas are often enhanced with vibrant acrylic colors and gilt highlights.

The kittenish. cat half-mask, with button nose, pointed ears, and expressive eyes, allegedly celebrates feline rarity in historic Venice.

On the other hand, the bizarre Plague Doctor half-mask did not appear until the 16th century, when doctors wore it while treating plague victims. Today, its spectacle-like eye-holes and long beak (filled with aromatic herbs and spices), when paired with a broad-brimmed hat, waxed-leather overcoat, close-fitting undergarments, thick gloves, boots, and a cane (so doctors needn’t touch the ailing), are grim reminders of man’s mortality.

Other Venetian masks celebrate traditional stock characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, an improvisational theater whose music, acrobatics, and comic frolic has charmed Italians for centuries. All cover half the face, which allowed players to speak. In addition, all feature highly exaggerated, easily identifiable facial expressions that reflect their characters’ flamboyant personalities.

Beribboned Colombina eye-masks, worn by men and women alike, are named for the vain, tambourine-tapping Commedia maidservant. Modern ones, in addition to featuring bright hues, decoupage, and decorative scrolling, may be crowned with hand-folded, gold-trimmed sheet music, mosaic, playing-card, or tarot-themed Florentine-paper fans. White Pierrot masks, which portray mournful clowns pining for love of Colombina, typically shed one, large, symbolic tear. Pantalone masks, depicting miserly merchants, feature slanted eyes, wrinkled brows, and big, bowed noses. Saggy-cheeked Pulcinella masks, traditionally made of leather, depict glowering eyes beneath prominent, furrowed brows.

Glittery, gilded, full-face joker masks, embellished with belled crowns and collars, celebrate Commedia clowns, masters of music, magic, jesting and juggling. Cunning, comic zannis, depicting village fools with forbidding foreheads, bulging eyebrows, and long, curved noses, were once associated with primordial devilment that threatened harvests. Zanni-type Harlequins, in addition to blunt noses and arched eyebrows, feature bumps on their foreheads. These represent Devils’ horns.

Though traditional, hand crafted , authentic Venetian masks remain so popular, imaginative contemporary ones are also enticing. Simple or sumptuous, all are gems. Most cost between $30 and $80, depending on their intricacy and size.

Mardi Gras reached New Orleans in the 1700s, continuing until the arrival of the Spanish. In the mid-1800s, when Louisiana had become a U.S. state, a group of New Orleans businessmen, known as the Mistick Krewe of Comus, recreated Mardi Gras festivities with a torch-lit parade, complete with rolling floats and marching bands. When the Rex Organization was founded decades later, this enthusiastic group not only introduced Rex, the traditional “King of Carnival.” It also established the official Mardi Gras color scheme, purple, green and gold, representing justice, faith, and power. Today, elegantly designed, Rex-sponsored Mardi Gras Processions, famed for their rousing music and opulent artistic, mythological, and historic-themed floats, mark the holiday.

Other modern New Orleans balls, masquerades, and processions are affiliated with Krewes, local social organizations evocative of earlier clubs by that name. Each krewe has its own traditions, including royal courts, contemporary-themed parades, and throws — trinkets, toys, blinky beads, or themed doubloons tossed to spectators.

2/7/2020
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