Monday, February 27, 2017

What is the Ballad of the Masks and the Beheading of the Bull? - Venice Carnival 2017

Here Comes the Bull! Venice Carnival 2017
(Venice, Italy) The Ballad of the Masks and The Beheading of the Bull are "new" elements that were added to the Venice Carnival a couple years ago. Actually, the Beheading of the Bull is an ancient tradition that started back on Giovedì Grosso, or Fat Thursday, in 1162, and was part of Carnevale for centuries.

There is a Venetian expression: "Tagliar la testa al toro," which translates to: "Cut the head of the bull." What does that colorful expression mean and how did it originate?

Cat Bauer - Venice Carnival 2017
This is a story about the Holy Roman Empire, which, by 1162, was German, led by Frederick Barbarossa (aka Red Beard) and his battle to conquer Italy. Ulrich II von Treven was Austrian, and supported Barbarossa and the empire. Ulrich was the Patriarch of Aquileia, a Roman city not that far from Venice on the mainland, about six miles away from the Adriatic Sea.

Enrico Dandolo was Venetian, and the Patriarch of Grado, a town on an island and peninsula not far from Aquileia. For centuries, Grado and Aquileia constantly battled each other for power. (NOTE: Enrico Dandolo's famous nephew was also named Enrico Dandolo, and would become the Doge of Venice and leader of the Fourth Crusade, but he is not part of this story.) Venice, Aquileia and Grado were tumultuous neighbors.

I could not find a decent map to illustrate the three different locations, so I made one myself, which you can click to enlarge:

Many years ago, when I first moved to Venice, one of my big questions was: why are all these impressive palaces on the Grand Canal? Who were these people? Why not shacks? So, a Venetian friend of mine brought me to Aquileia and Grado.

Aquileia has a long, complex history, but to greatly simplify, it started out as a Roman colony in about 180 BC. As time went on, a bunch of Roman emperors used to stop by; some even made it their residence. In 168, Marcus Aurelius made it the principal fortress against the barbarians of the North and East.

By the end of the fourth century, Aquileia had an imperial palace, and was so important that it had become the ninth great city of the world, with a population of 100,000. Then, in 401, they were invaded by the Alarics and Visigoths, topped off by Attila the Hun in 452, and much of the population fled to the lagoons of Grado and Venice for safety. The patriarch fled to Grado, bringing holy relics blessed by St. Mark himself with him. Grado declared the ecclesiastical power had thus been transferred, and that it was the "New Aquileia."

Venice Carnival 2017
Aquileia pulled itself together, and rose again, and was invaded again, this time by the Lombards. This back and forth went on and on, until two different patriarchs evolved: one in Aquileia, and one in Grado with ever-changing loyalties to various popes and emperors, as the world adjusted to the new religion, Christianity.

By the time we arrive to the year of our story, 1162, the Austrian Ulrich II von Treven was the Patriarch of Aquileia, and Venetian nobleman Enrico Dandolo was the Patriarch of Grado, whose base had moved to Venice, over in the Church of San Silvestro. By that time, the battle over who had the greater ecclesiastical power had been going on for centuries.

However, what was really happening in 1162 was a proxy war, with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa intending to conquer Venice, using Ulrich, the Patriarch of Aquileia, like a bishop on a chess board. Ulrich, who was in contact with Barbarossa, attacked Grado. In response, Doge Vitale Michiel blasted a powerful force of enraged Venetians to Grado, who surrounded the city, captured the piazza, and brought Ulrich, twelve of his lords, and 700 captives back to Venice. They marched Ulrich and the lords through the streets of Venice, insulting and taunting them.

The 12 Marie - World's Oldest Beauty Contest
The Doge said he would let Ulrich and his gang go back to Aquileia on one condition: they must send a bull, twelve pigs and bread every year to mark the day of Venice's conquest, which happened to be Giovedi Grosso, a day to indulge before Lent. Ulrich caved in. The Venetians slaughtered the bull and the pigs provided by Aquileia, divided up the meat, and celebrated their great victory over the pesky Patriarch of Aquileia.

Carnival already existed in Venice -- it was first mentioned in 1094 -- but that this scene took place on Giovedì Grosso, was supreme good luck. From then on, the Venetian Senate used the yearly re-enactment of the Beheading of the Bull to remind the population of what champions they were, and marked the day with lots of pomp and circumstance. The bull represented the humbled Patriarch of Aquileia, and the pigs represented the disgraced lords. I can't date exactly when the tradition ended, but probably around the time of Napoleon, with the end of Carnival itself.

By the way, Frederick Barbarossa tried to conquer Venice again in 1177, which led to to the creation of another beloved Venetian celebration, the Festa della Sensa, the Marriage to the Sea:

Venice Marries the Sea and the America's Cup!!!

Beheading of the Bull - Photo: Official Carnival site

So, what does "tagliar la testa al toro" mean? It means, basta, enough, or a definite solution. Here is an example, given to me by a Venetian: "I claim I gave you €1000. You claim I gave you €800. This argument goes on and on. Finally, I say, Basta! Tagliar la testa al toro! Enough! Cut the head of the bull! Give me €900, and we will stop arguing about it."

I asked more Venetians, including younger ones who live on the mainland, and discovered that the phrase had a slightly different meanings depending on where you were from, and was also used all throughout Italy. But older Venetians D.O.C. said, "Forget about what anybody else says. It means, this is what we are going to do to resolve this situation, case closed!"

Venice Carnival 2017
Two years ago, the mask-making cultural organization, L'Arte dei Mascareri, decided to bring this ancient tradition back to Fat Thursday. These are some of the same people that reignited Carnival back in 1980, which grew into the international spectacle it has become today. One of the most prominent members of the organization is Sergio Boldrin of La Bottega dei Mascareri, who, along with his brother, Massimo, creates some of the best, original masks in Venice.

Click to go to La Bottega dei Mascareri.

Sergio Boldrin of La Bottega dei Mascareri
The Ballad of the Masks and The Beheading of the Bull have been a great success. A parade of Venetians wearing costumes and masks, along with the bull (no longer real:-) gathers at 2:30pm in Campo Santa Margherita. There are drummers and musicians, dancers, stilt-walkers, the twelve Marie, and a joyful assortment of colorful characters. The parade moves to San Barnaba, then to Accademia and over the bridge into Santa Stefano; next it promenades down XXII Marzo, arriving in Piazza San Marco at 4:30pm. It swoops through the Piazza until arriving on stage. This year, the bull transformed into a male dancer wearing a bull head, and was slain by a female dancer in red.

I was lucky enough to be on stage when the parade arrived, and thought the show was fantastic. Judging by the reaction of the crowd, so did those in the audience.

Beheading of the Bull - Venice Carnival 2017
The mask-makers, together with VELA, have organized The Ballad of the Masks and The Beheading of the Bull to promote the ancient craft of mask-making and inject some local mischief and joy back into Carnevale. Next Giovedì Grosso, you are welcome to join the parade if you wear a mask and a costume. It's a great new element to Carnival -- a long parade of multi-colored, bouncy people snaking their way through Venice on Fat Thursday!

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Friday, February 17, 2017

Sweet, Sweet Venice - Caffè Florian Delicacies - Book of Recipes

 "Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go." 
---Truman Capote

(Venice, Italy) The Caffè Florian, in the heart of Piazza San Marco, has been one of the most beloved venues in Venice for centuries by both Venetians and visitors alike. The oldest coffeehouse in all of Italy can also claim to be the oldest in all the world, depending on how one defines the term. It was established in 1720, and has been a cozy, delightful and crucial meeting point of civilized minds for nearly 300 years.

Marco Maccapani, Artistic Director of Venice Carnival, at Caffè Florian with Cristiano Strozzi (seated)
Yesterday, the Florian launched I Dolci Veneziai del Caffè Florian, a sweet little book in both English and Italian filled with classic Venetian dessert recipes by Cristiano Strozzi, the Executive Chef Pâtissier. But it's not only about recipes -- the desserts are accompanied by fascinating anecdotes about their origins, with gorgeous photos by Marco Tortato and clever text by Stefano Stipitivich. I had never had fried cream before, and it was yummy. Here is the intro:

Crema fritta (fried cream) is a typical dish in various Italian regions and can be served as either an appetizer or a dessert. The recipe goes back many a year. It coincided with the onset of winter when the Veneto country folk slaughtered the pig as the cold began to arrive. The lard was used to cook creams, frittelle and galani, so crema fritta was another typical sweet treat at Christmas and Carnival time; the Venetian Carnival began straight after Boxing Day, on 27 December.

In the Venetian custom, crema fritta was cooked at the last minute and eaten at the end of the meal, doused in raisin wine, a "vin foresto" (foreign wine), as they used to say in the Lagoon.

Hot chocolate and cookies - Divine!
One of the most divine things about Italy is that the hot chocolate is real, oozy and thick, with sensuality and substance. It is like drinking an aphrodisiac, which Casanova liked to use in his seductions. From I Dolci Veneziai del Caffè Florian:

...It was only in the 16th century that chocolate reached Europe: Hernàn Cortéz brought cocoa to Spain in the early 1500, but no other European country would experience the joys of chocolate until the 17th century. In 1615, Anne of Austria, the Infanta of Spain, married Louis XIII and thus brought the drink to France, from where it spread to Holland, Germany and England.

The Dutch soon became the main importers. In Europe's capital cities, chocolate was as fashionable as coffee: the early "coffee shops," especially in Venice and London, began to serve not only the "black beverage" but also chocolate in a cup.

...they say that Giacomo Casanova had his lovers drink it as an aphrodisiac in voluptuous quantities with added chili. Could it be true?

Caffè Florian during Carnival - Photo: Cat Bauer
The Caffè Florian is a landmark that exemplifies Venice in all its elegance, romance and intelligence. I'm not going to give away the actual recipes -- for that you will have to get the book. The Florian is a wonderful place in which to heighten your senses at any time of the year, but now, during Carnival, it is spectacular.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Venice Carnival 2017 and A Brief History of Mask-Making

Sergio Boldrin of La Bottega dei Mascareri
(Venice, Italy)  Venice is a unique city. Built on the water, tucked safely inside her own lagoon, Venice was once the center of international trade, as well as the publishing industry. The ruling mercantile aristocracy were seafarers, enormously wealthy, and competed with each other to build the most magnificent palaces filled with lush furnishings, art and tapestries. Venetians are good with a boat.

Venetians had their own peculiar customs like gliding around in gondolas and wearing masks. They loved gambling and going to the theater. The first public opera house opened in Venice in 1637, and was so popular that it spawned many others, making Venice the one-time opera capital of the world.

Carnevale - Photo: Cat Bauer
In honor of Carnival, which starts today here in Venice, I am republishing a slightly edited version of a piece I first wrote way back in 2001 for the International Herald Tribune - Italy Daily to which I own the copyright about the history of mask-making. Today, Sergio & Massimo Boldrin still own La Bottega dei Mascareri, creating masks by hand using papier-mâché.

A Brief History of Mask Making
Cat Bauer

In a city where there seems to be a mask shop on every corner, it may be surprising to learn that the ancient Venetian craft of mask making was only revived about forty years ago.

Sergio Boldrin is one of the senior mask-makers in Venice, as well as an accomplished artist. When he was a child, there were no mask shops in the entire city. There was no Carnival. During the terrorism and political upheavals in Italy in the 1970s, the wearing of masks was discouraged.

Masks disappeared, along with Carnival, when Napoleon's troops brought an end to the Venetian Republic in 1797. Since then, they've resurfaced and submerged again throughout the decades until being vanquished to the pages of the history books by the 20th century. However, masks staged a spectacular comeback in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a group of young people, including Sergio, brought them once again into the forefront.

As far back as the 11th century, the mattaccino costume was worn by mischievous young men, who, dressed as clowns, would bombard noblewomen with eggs filled with rosewater, inspiring the first official documentation regarding masks: a 1268 law prohibiting the throwing of eggs while disguised. The Venetian government apparently gave up trying to enforce it, however, and resorted to putting up nets along the Procuratie in St. Mark's Square to protect the ladies and their rich clothing. Even in Sergio's day, young Venetian men opened fire on expensively-dressed women with the yolky bombs. "I did throw an egg or two myself as a kid," confessed Sergio. "Venetian boys have been throwing eggs for more than 700 years."

Mask making in Venice can be documented back to the 13th century, though it probably existed much earlier. On April 10, 1436, the ancient profession of mascareri was founded under the jurisdiction of the Painter's Guild. Over the years, masks were used for a variety of reasons -- in the government, the theater, and as a means of disguise. Masks provided the Venetians a degree of anonymity.

The wearing of a mask put everyone on the same level: rich and poor, nobleman and citizen, beautiful and ordinary, old and young. It permitted confidences to be exchanged anonymously -- everything from accusations before State Inquisitors, to a potpourri of sexual indiscretions. Prostitutes practiced their trade without fear of retribution; homosexuals hid their illicit lifestyle. In 1458, it was decreed that men were forbidden to dress up as women and enter convents to commit indecent acts.

Not all masks were used for indelicacies, however. The bauta was worn by both men and women, and was not considered a costume but a form of dress -- required wearing if a woman wanted to go to the theater.  

Il medico della peste had a long beak-like nose stuffed with disinfectants, and, as its name implies, was used to protect doctors from the plague.

Another ingredient in this colorful mix was the Italian theater, Commedia dell'arte. In the 18th century, the renowned Venetian playwright, Carlo Goldoni, brought theatrical masks to the forefront. Pantalone, Harlequin, Colombina and Pulcinella were among the many masks that found their way into the Carnival.

Over the years, Carnival festivities grew more decadent until it evolved into a 250-day event of non-stop parties, gambling and dancing. Social and class distinctions were flipped on their heads, with servants dressing up as masters and vice versa. It was difficult to distinguish a housewife wearing a traditional mask, cape, hood and three corner hat from a nobleman dressed in the same outfit, allowing both to move freely though the city without fear of recognition.

Il Ridotto by Pietro Longhi (c. 1750)
Sergio has been a major force in keeping this early art form alive. Together with his brother, Massismo, he owns La Bottega dei Mascareri. The original shop at the foot of the Rialto Bridge is not much bigger than a closet, and shares a wall with one of the oldest churches in Venice, the 11th century San Giacomo di Rialto.

A second, larger shop is located on Calle dei Saoneri 
at San Polo 2720, operated by Massimo Boldrin and Rita Perinello, where there is an opportunity to watch the mask-makers at work. La Bottega's creations are completely handmade the traditional way, from papier-mâché.

The Boldrin brother's masks have been featured in Harper's Bazaar, Condé Nast Traveler, Orient Express Magazine, National Georgraphic Traveler, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Vogue, as well as many other internationally respected journals, and in numerous TV shows and films, such as "Eyes Wide Shut."

La Bottega dei Mascareri
San Polo 80 (Rialto)
Tel. & Fax: (39) 041.522-3857
San Polo 2720
Tel.: (39) 041.524-2887

Go to La Bottega dei Mascareri for more information about authentic Venetian masks.

Go to the official Venice Carnival site for information about Carnevale Venezia 2017.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Thursday, February 2, 2017

And Now, Where do We Go? Exciting Cultural Program at T Fondaco in Venice

T Fondaco dei Tedeschi - Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti © Dfs Group
(Venice, Italy) After many years of hibernating inside a colossal cocoon, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi at the foot of the Rialto Bridge recently metamorphosed into its current incarnation. An energetic nip and tuck by the renowned architect, Rem Koolhaas, and his OMA team, has lifted the monumental structure into the 21st century.

Originally constructed in 1508, the ancient building had first been the commercial center for German merchants during the Holy Roman Empire, next a customs house under Napoleon, and then a post office under Mussolini. On October 1, 2016, it officially opened as a DFS luxury department store, complete with an Alajmo brothers eatery on the ground floor called AMO (Italian for "I love"), and a cultural center on the top.

So the question is: AND NOW, WHERE DO WE GO?

The T Fondaco wants to take you on a cultural journey. Part of the arrangement they have with Venice is to open its doors to the community. Today, they announced what the program would include. It is filled with music -- in collaboration with Veneto Jazz -- dance, film, literature and other delights. Everything is free. However, there is a caveat: you must make an online reservation, and there is a limited amount of available tickets. There are 170 seats, with standing room for another 30 people.

Roberto Meneghesso, Vice President of DFS Italia, whose energy is contagious, had another surprise. He revealed a copy of the 1616 copper engraving by Raphael Custos that illustrated what the Fondaco looked like way back when.

Roberto Meneghesso, VP DFS Italia
There has been a lot of... discussion about the moving of the ancient well from the center of the Fondaco to the side (you cannot move one stone inside Venice without it becoming a topic of... discussion). Well, the well was originally just where it is now -- you can see it there on the right; it is inside that tower-like contraption. In addition to being a commercial center, the Fondaco was also home to the German community, and apparently they needed a method to hoist the water up to where it was most useful.

Fondaco dei Tedeschi by Raphael Custos (1616)
I am going to list the cultural program from February through June below, In Italian. In order to book, you must email, except for Pulitzer-prize winning American author Michael Chabon on March 30, who will be in Venice for part of the Incroci di Civiltà literary festival, and must be booked at

And now, where do we go?

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog 

Cultural Center - Matteo De Fina © Dfs Group

Venerdì 10, ore 18.30
Fabrizio Bosso Spiritual Trio
feat. Walter Ricci

Mercoledì 15, ore 18.30
Giuseppe Culicchia
Mi sono perso in un luogo comune

Venerdì 3, ore 19

Proiezione di video e documentari del Video Concorso Francesco Pasinetti

Martedì 7, ore 18.30
Viola Di Grado, Bambini di ferro
musica di Shedir

Venerdì 17, ore 18.30
Kinga Glyk Trio

Mercoledì 22
Viaggio Blu
ore 19-19.15 | 19.30-19.45 | 20-20.15

Giovedì 30, ore 21
Michael Chabon, in dialogo con Shaul Bassi e Mattia Ravasi

Martedì 11, ore 18.30

Marco Rossari, Le cento vite di Nemesio
musica di intonarumori

Venerdì 21, ore 18.30
Marea & Javier Girotto
Mediterranean Symposium 10th Anniversary

Mercoledì 26,
Viaggio Rosso
ore 19-19.15 | 19.30-19.45 | 20-20.15

Martedì 2, ore 18.30

Vitaliano Trevisan short cuts in jazz
musica di Paolo Brusò

Venerdì 19, ore 18.30
Mauro Ottolini Trio Campato in Aria

Mercoledì 24,
Viaggio Bianco
ore 19-19.15 | 19.30-19.45 | 20-20.15

Martedì 6, ore 18.30

Lorena Canottiere,
D R A W M U S I C (disegno dal vivo)
musica di Stefano Risso

Venerdì 16, ore 18.30
Il mese del rosario