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lord of the rings inspired head-dresses   .  vintage revival / object trouve 


A playground for partying, gambling & immoral behaviour.

Introduction           Carnival        Masks        Beauty Spots        Language of the fan

Sign language        Marriage        Casanova       Modern Venice       Links

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A brief introduction:

For the last 20 years Venice has once again hosted the annual Carnevale Venezia which died out after Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797.

Since the 16th century the Venetian Republic had been loosing power & wealth due to changing trade routes. By the 18th century Venice was in decline & the Carnevale & wearing of masks from October to Lent were great tools keeping the disgruntled populace happy. Andrea di Robelant author of the fabulous book  'A Venetian Affair' observes:


Il Ridotto - the State run gambling house was the most popular place to meet & socialise & 18th century Venetians were gambling addicts. Venetians & tourists alike would squander their family fortunes at the gambling tables. Wealthy Venetians were expected,  by the State to turn up & play & many lost their family fortunes to the State's purse.

Interesting excert from this website's Carnival history page:



Carnival would traditionally start on December 26th & go on to Ash Wednesday but masks would be worn as part of everyday attire from October through to Lent. Everyone more masks, The Doge (equivalent of a President), aristocrats, servents, prostitutes & people selling goods in the Rialto market. The Venetian republic was a stifling place to live, small enough so that people knew each others business & gossip & spying were rife, predominantly a Catholic society & a republic with a very strict & inflexible pecking order.

Venice Carnival / Carnivale 2006 is advertised as being on from 17th - 28th February '06



 Masks disguised the wearers identity & for almost six months of the year Venetians of all classes could indulge in some good old fashioned escapism. The most popular masks were the Moreta (worn by women) & the Bauta (worn by both men & women).

The Moreta was a mask made of velvet for example which covered the whole face. It was not tied on & was held in place by the wearer clenching a button on the inside of the mask between her teeth. This being the age of Casanova, out of control gambling addictions & excess of all kinds, aristocrats & peasants would mingle & inevitably engage in sexual trysts. The Moreta with it's button held fast between a woman's teeth meant she could not speak & this, apparently, added an exiting aspect to these faceless encounters. Noble women who would go our wearing the Moreta would complete their disguise by dressing as a poor person.

The Bauta consisted of a mask, hooded cape which came down to the shoulders & a traditional tricorn hat - it was not a sexy look & it would have taken the prowess of Casanova to make this look work!:




modern day masks:

Although the Bauta & other 18th century costume looks are still popular at modern day Carnevale, the Comedia del Arte has also spawned some very popular character masks & other carnival goes will choose fantasy themes.

This mask is one I bought on my first visit to Venice &, as you can see, decorative masks are more atttractive & less scary than those of the past (imagine a man dressed like the image above looming out of a dark alley!).  Eighteenth century Venice is a period modern day Venice still celebrates & the period influences all manner of goods on sale to tourists. This mask reflects that period perfectly & you can see from this photograph taken at the Doges Palace what an ornate & inspiring place Venice is:





Venetian women liked to dress up for balls & social events & would have their hair dressed in elaborate beehives & adorned with jewels. They would paint their nails, drench themselves in exotic perfumes & wear beauty spots. Beauty spots, like the use of one's fan or the secret sign language between lovers, conveyed a message:




Information taken from "A Venetian Affair" by Andrea di Robilant.




Duvelleroy's "Le Language de l'Eventail":


In the Eighteenth century upper class ladies & those who aspired to be carried fans everywhere, to the opera & balls, to zoos & prisons. They were used  to keep a lady cool, shield her face from the heat of a fire so she would not look flushed & from the sun to retain her pale complexion. Fans also dispatched insects. A fan would be an expensive item & like Rolex watches & Manolo Blahnik heels, reflected the owners wealth & status. Fans would be an ideal gift to bring back from the Grand Tour for a relative or a gift from a lover & were used so often that a lady would go through several fans a year. A lady would not be seen without a fan & ladies were often depicted posing with their fans in European paintings from this period such as in this illustration by Moreau Le Jeune. Venetian women would have carried fans made of lace from Burano (one of the other islands in the Venetian lagoon)


Fans were also used to flirt: 


 A lady would drop her fan 'accidentally' in the same way ladies would later drop their handkerchiefs ~ so an attentive young man would retrieve it for her,

 Fans could be used to mask the face, eye holes would sometimes be cut in a fan to create a mask (occasionally a mask would be painted on the front of the fan) or a lady could peak seductively through the fine netting of a lace fan. Some fans came with mirrors mounted on the sticks so a lady could deviously check to see if she was being admired & of course the way in which a lady used her fan could be used to converse silently with a lover or potential suitor. A series of signals were developed in Spain during the 18th century which were later brought together, published & distributed in the 19th century by the fan maker Duvelleroy with the sale of his fans. These signals became known as "The Language of the Fan".............




Romance & Flirting:

  • I love you.      ~      Drawing the fan across the cheek.
  • Do you love me?      ~      Fan pressed shut.
  • Kiss me.      ~      With the handle to the lips.

  • Wait for me.      ~      Fan opened wide.

  • Desirous of acquaintance.      ~      Carrying the fan in the left hand, in front of the face.

  • Follow me.      ~      Carrying the fan in the right hand, in front of the face.

  • We are watched.      ~      Twirling the fan in the left hand.

  • You are too willing.      ~      Carrying the fan in the right hand.

  • I am married.       ~      Fanning slowly.

  • I am engaged.       ~      Fanning quickly.

  • I wish to speak to you.       ~      Touching the tip of the fan with the finger.

  • Come and talk to me.       ~      Carrying the fan in the left hand, open.

  • Donít forget me.       ~      Placing the fan behind the head.


Illustration of what a fan/mask might look like.



Love on the rocks:

  • I wish to get rid of you.       ~      Placing the fan on the left ear.

  • You have changed.       ~      Drawing the fan across the forehead.
  • I hate you.       ~      Drawing the fan through the hand.

  • I love another.       ~      Twirling the fan in the right hand.

  • I am sorry.       ~      Drawing across the eyes.

  • You are cruel.       ~      Opening & shutting the fan.

  • We will be friends.       ~      Dropping the fan.



In answer to your question.....


  • Yes.       ~      Letting the fan rest on the right cheek.
  • No.       ~      Letting the fan rest on the left cheek.


One would suppose that in order to carry these movements off with a flourish, a lady would need to

use body language, eye contact & head & facial expressions.


After all to convey " You are cruel "  to a lover effectively a woman with a fiery temper would likely flick the fan open & snap it shut,

a dejected woman on the other hand  might do the same movements slowly to convey the hurt her lover had caused her.





In "A Venetian Affair" which tells the remarkable story of a love affair between Memmo a young man & member of the Venetian elite & Giustiniana, a half-Engish girl of a lower rank who's mother was illegitimate, the author talks of the various sign languages they used. The book is so remarkable because it is based on two sets of love letters discovered at separate times in different places & the research involves a paper trail from all over Europe & even includes entries in Casanova's famous autobiography. Memmo would write that Giustiniana should appear at her window & indicate by touching her hair if they would be going to the Ridotto or nod or shake her head a little to indicate she would be going to the piazza (San Marco).

A Venetian Affair (available at ) - the book is beautifully written & a fabulous read.





Venetian men & women had to marry within their own social stations & clandestine

marriages secretly sanctioned by the church were on the increase though "Any patrician who

attempted a secret marriage put himself in direct conflict with his family & institutions". The

Bauta made it easier for young Venetians to carry out their secret affairs, trusted servants

were used to shuttle messages around the city & rooms in which to secretly meet were

rented from understanding friends or neighbours. Few of these elicit relationships ever ended

in marriage & were more likely to end in a girl's ruin. Giustiniana Wynne (from "A Venetian

affair") found herself in Paris, pregnant & in the process of securing marriage to a wealthy

Parisian. She turned to Casanova for help as a last resort when she was five months

pregnant & terrified of what her family would do when they found out. Casanova had medical

knowledge & would often help women, in this case he took Giustiniana to a woman who gave

her a potion to induce a miscarriage but it did not work & in the end Giustiniana had to slip

away to a Nunnery (later saying she had fled from the pressure of the Paris gossips & the

marriage) to give birth in secret.


Nunneries around Venice were full of young women who did not particularly want to be there

but had been sent to live their lives out in these places for financial reasons. Families who

could not afford a dowry for a daughter's marriage could give the dowry to the nunnery but

upon their daughters death the family would get the dowry refunded. This was a cheap was of

disposing of daughters they could not afford. It also means the scandals surrounding

Casanova's relasionships with nuns were not so scandalous. In one case, he had known her

before she was sent away to a nunnery & was simply carrying on the affair.





As men go in 18th century Venice, Casanova had a lot going for him. He was tall, charming,

educated & liked women. The son of actors, he briefly studied law in Padua although he

wanted to study medicine (he picked up some medical skills from student friends which

would later come in useful), briefly played the violin, briefly joined the church, etc. He mixed

with high society, attended the theatre, balls & the gambling houses (he liked to gamble) were

he would often pick up his masked conquests. Casanova liked to seduce women &

liked to talk to a woman for hours as part of his seduction technique. He would not take a

woman to bed if she was too drunk & he thought she would regret it or not enjoy it or

the language barrier made it too difficult to communicate. He wanted a woman to enjoy

herself & I'm sure this made him popular all over Europe from nunneries to brothels. He was

also a blaggard & enjoyed years of living the high life, rent free by, for instance, convincing an

old Parisian woman he could use his magic powers to make her young again. He also

liked to socialise with foreigners which was frowned on by the authorities & he was

suspected of being a spy. Eventually this suspicion would lead to him being thrown in prison

(the Leads) from which he famously escaped (the only man to do so) & left Venice under a

cloud. He would later be allowed to return to Venice providing he would agree to become a

spy for the Republic.




Is a stunning & inspirational place. If you love beautiful buildings & a city steeped in rich history, it is well worth a visit.


Above & below left, Venice experiencing Aqua Alta (high water).


Photograph (right) taken from the Bridge of sighs (attached to 'The leads').



Venice Carnival 2005.

Venice web cams.

The Fan Museum, Greenwich, London.   Many thanks to Alexandra for providing me with Duvelleroy's 'Language of the Fan'.


Wedding gown shown - Elizabeth by Chantal Mallett.























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