Wednesday, February 3, 2016
A Noble Laborer of Carnevale, This Morning
Just as nobility in the old Venetian Republic had their particular dress code, so certain workmen in present-day Venice have their own. The great achievement of the woman's costume above, which I happened upon this morning after dropping off my son at school, is to ingeniously combine the two.
Her imaginatively-detailed and well-tailored 18th-century patrician suit is made of the reflective orange material worn by today's operai, and features not only small reproductions of workmen's tools (the small plier, wrench and brick decorating her sleeve below), but incorporates some of the actual equipment itself into the costume: most prominently, the orange traffic cone, complete with warning light, that tops her tri-corner hat.
But even the gray "curls" of her would-be wig turn out to be, on closer examination, simply equal-length sections of plastic foam tubing (perhaps used as insulation on pipes) glued one below the other.
From a historical perspective, part of the costume's humor comes from the fact that actual patricians in the old Republic were forbidden to do most kinds of labor, as most kinds were considered inappropriate to their class. Impoverished nobles in the later Republic, for example, who'd squandered or gambled away their wealth and its sources, could work as dealers in one of the casinos, but many depended on financial assistance provided to poor members of their class by the state, doing their best to keep up the required appearances (the right clothes in the right colors and fabrics)* on limited funds: dressing and posing as nobility, in other words, on permanent holiday. Though probably with a good deal less enjoyment than those people who now come to Venice on holiday during Carnevale to dress up and pose as nobles.
In any case, the men on either side of the costumed woman in the image above, wearing their own contemporary standard-issue orange work coats, just happened to be unloading a work boat near the Ponte della Paglia as she passed on her way to Piazza San Marco.
They were amused by her get-up, and readily posed beside her (while a photographer with the costumed noble suggested various poses). Then, still smiling, they went back to the real work of their ordinary day, while she went off to pose in the Piazza among the other costumed celebrants of Carnevale.
*John Julius Norwich writes: "Already in the 17th century an ominous feature of the social life of the city was the growing class of impoverished nobles who, tending as they did to live in or near the parish of San Barnabà, were popularly known as the barnabotti. As official members of the Venetian aristocracy, they were required to dress in silk and continued to be entitled to their seats in the Great Council; many, however, were too poor or too uneducated to occupy any but the lowest administrative positions, and since they were debarred by their rank from working as craftsmen or shopkeepers, increasing numbers drifted into corrupt practices... or lived on poor relief." (A History of Venice, Chapter 45).