- Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic
Venice Incognito represents the first monographic study of the history of masks in Venice—a remarkable fact considering that the mask has long embodied Venetian material culture. Ritual masking was a unique practice in Venice, starting as early as the thirteenth century, reaching its height in the eighteenth century, and continuing in one way or another to the present day. Indeed, one of the most common complaints voiced by Venetians now is that too many local butchers and vegetable stalls have turned into tourist mask shops, pointing to the continued presence of the mask in the city. Johnson has brilliantly hit upon a subject that is both at the center of Venetian life and, until now, has remained almost untouched by Anglophone scholars.
Among the many topics that Johnson covers in the twenty-one short chapters of his text are where, when, and why both Venetians and visitors to the city regularly wore masks. During the eighteenth century in particular, all of Venetian society donned masks for (a surprising) six months of the year—a practice linked not to an extension of Carnival, as many have long assumed, but to the Venetian theater season. Johnson argues that on the stage, in the street, and in the infamous gambling halls [End Page 314] of the city, masks did not work to disguise or create anonymity. Contrary to our modern understanding of masks as deceptive, masks had a much more conservative function, "preserving distance, guarding status, and permitting contact among unequals through fictive concealment. Rather than obscuring identities, masks affirmed their permanence" (xii).
In general, masks protected rather than altered the self, and, along these lines, they served many specific functions: They guarded female modesty at the theater, covered the pride of beggars, and allowed nobles to mix comfortably with the underclasses and Venetian patricians to mix with foreigners, which was otherwise prohibited by law. Thus, by offering a figment of anonymity, masks enabled communication among people and groups that was otherwise forbidden. Johnson argues that, in general, any sense of disguise was merely token; most people knew who the person behind a mask was (206). Masking did not encourage people to forget their identities but instead to revel in them. These conclusions and the others Johnson draws about the tradition of masking in Venice will prove fascinating, even to those possessing a great familiarity with the city and its history.
Despite this strength, the text is uneven. Certain chapters present copious new ideas and interpretations about masks. For instance, Chapter 7, which explores the numerous occasions when Venetians wore masks, is full of astonishing information (masked Venetian nobles greeted traveling masked heads of state with masked entourages — how bizarre!), and Chapter 13 contains a compelling analysis of how masks defended social status. Other chapters, however, cover age-old general knowledge about the history of Venice that in no way merits repetition. Indeed, Part I (the first six chapters) discusses Venetian Carnival and Casanova in a way that offers little that is new and, oddly, little about masks.
The unevenness of the book could stem from changing tides in publishing and a desire to reach scholarly and general audiences simultaneously—a goal that is not easy to achieve. Academic historians of Venice, for instance, will find Chapter 18—Johnson's discussion of Bakhtin, Davis, and the idea that Carnival functioned as a political "safety-valve"—extremely dated, whereas a general audience might have no interest whatsoever in such literary and anthropological theories.1 This study reveals some of the pitfalls involved in trying to straddle this divide in readership. Nevertheless, its better chapters are genuinely strong, providing food for further thought about the deeper meanings of the Venetian use of masks. [End Page 315]
1. See Mikhail Bakhtin (trans. Hélène Iswolsky), Rabelais and His World (Bloomington, 1984); Natalie Zemon Davis, "The Reasons of Misrule," in Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (Stanford, 1975), 97-123.