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. The Beheading of the Bull is actually 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

1 comment:

  1. 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. The Beheading of the Bull is actually an ancient tradition that started back on Giovedì Grosso, or Fat Thursday, in 1162, and was part of Carnevale for centuries.

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