Feast for the Senses

One of the most important genres of music is opera. It is believed that opera started in Mantua Italy toward the end of the 16th century. The first work was Jacopo Peri’s already lost work, “Dafne”, inspired by an elite circle of Florentine humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals called the “Camerata dei Bardi”. It was an attempt to revive the classical Greek plays. Members of this group believed that the “chorus” part of the Greek dramas was originally sung and conceived the opera as a means to restore this tradition. The word opera means “work” in Italian and defines a composition in which poetry, dance and music are combined. This theatrical spectacle was perfect for the opulent society at a time when Italian city-states were getting increasingly secular.

Opera did not originate in the lagoon, but like many inventions, it flourished in Venice. This serene republic offered a very nurturing environment for any new development in fine art and culture. It was also at a time when Venice had lost her traditional trading advantage to the East and was looking for new sources of revenue in foreign visitors and tourists. With her Carnevale and Festa della Sensa festivals, Venice was already drawing a large number of Italian and foreign visitors. Carnevale is a time of masks, celebrations, extravagant entertainment and the blurring of class distinctions.

Quickly in Venice, opera was drawing large audiences from the annual carnival crowds. It became a socially diversified public art with a guaranteed demand generated by the Venetian calendar. Opera readily indulged the visitors in the latest fashion, music and drama. For tourists, the opera spectacles mirrored the magical city itself. Viewing this new opportunity, Venetian patrician families competed to invest in theaters and opera productions to increase both their status and their wealth. These were the reasons for the fast development and the breadth of Venetian opera. By the mid-17th century, Venetian audiences had seen more than 150 different productions in her nine theaters. They ranged from the extremely aesthetic to the overly extravagant, from the classically poetic to the excessively vulgar. Nourished by these perfect conditions, opera was firmly planted in the lagoon.

Opera production, being an extremely portable art, quickly became a pan-Italian, as well as a widespread European phenomenon. Venetian opera was in every way larger than life. The cultured elite flocked from the rest of Europe to Venice as much for her music as for her more lavish masked balls. In the mid-17th century, Venice had a near monopoly on opera. During this period, Venice also built the best organs of the world. Venice had become a pleasure not only to the eyes, but also to the ears.

The Venetian Mask

Masks are as much a symbol of Venice as the gondolas although they have a much shorter history. Traditionally, Venetians were only allowed to wear masks during the Carnival season.
Venetian masks have ornate designs with gold, silver and colorful baroque decorations. There are two major types of masks, the full-face mask called the “Bauta” and the half-mask which covers the eyes is called the “Columbina”. The Bauta has a strong jaw line which tilts upward, making it very difficult for the wearer to eat or drink. It is usually accompanied by a tricorn and a red or black cape. The Bauta was actually worn by 18th century Venetians when anonymity was needed for political decisions. It was invented to guarantee a direct, free and secret vote in the Venetian democracy. However, as precaution against possible violence during ballots, the wearer of the Bauta was not allowed to carry weapons. The Columbina, also known as the Columbine or Columbino, originated in the early Italian theater of the Commedia dell’arte in the 16th century. It was designed to disguise but not cover the beautiful faces of the actresses.

Another recognizable mask is the “Medico della Peste”, or the Plague Doctor. Its long beak was devised as sanitary precautions for doctors while they were treating plague victims. Medieval people believed the plague was caused by the foul air around the victims. The “Arlecchino”, or harlequin mask, is a decorated half-mask often paired with a multicolored checkered costume. Other masks that make up the Venetian mask repertoire include the “Pulcinella”, or Punch mask, the “Brighella”, or mischievous servant mask, the “Scaramuccia”, or clown mask, the “la Ruffiana”, or old woman mask, and the “Volto“, the modern white mask.

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