Virgins in Venice by Mary Laven

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Above, Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata by Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588). Painter Plautilla Nelli was a Renaissance nun in Florence who came from a wealthy merchant family. She was enclosed together with her sister in the Santa Caterina da Siena convent. She taught herself how to paint while living in the nunnery. She is the first female painter in Florence to be documented during the Renaissance.

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As promised, another book that delves into a particular detail of Venetian history, specifically Renaissance, is Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent by Mary Laven. Fascinating! I read it twice in a row, and used a highlighter to mark half the book, and I’m not even a student. Yes, I’m a nerd. Nerdy for Venice! This work inspired a chapter in my book Venice; I had to write about this part of Venetian women’s history.

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In a nutshell, for hundreds of years in Venice (and all over Europe), women were forced into nunneries. Specifically here: noble born ladies. The rich and powerful families wouldn’t marry all the daughters they had. If they did, all their wealth would become watered-down within a generation or two. Instead, they’d marry one daughter, sometimes two. For the rest, to the nunneries they went. Marriages were about money, power, politics…usually everything but love. So for those gals who were married, they may not have had a grand time of it either, being wed to men not of their choosing. However, they were at the very least free from the convent.

Now of course, some ladies chose a pious, cloistered life. However in Venice, evidence leans toward the conclusion that most were threatened, forced and tricked into going. Imagine being a very young girl, entering a nunnery one day, and never going out again. Living within for a lifetime while the world forgot about you…just like prison. Yes, this book retells a history that will make you very sad.

Ms. Laven’s extensive research gives us insight into just what that may have been like. We are able to see what this enclosed life would have been, from the moment these ladies entered the nunnery, to the people and surroundings within, the rules, the schedules, the activities, the arguments, the deceit, the rations, the regulations for visits, the rule-breakers…the escapees. Oh man, oh man, oh man! Or should I say oh lady! Shut away women against their wills and they will find a way to aggress it, to continue reaching for life, love, dignity and freedom. Read this book and you’ll see why history will ever be more moving than fiction!

Venetian Noblewomen and their Terrace Living

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This painting is Vittore Carpaccio’s Two Ladies on a Terrace, painted in 1500. When I first saw this painting, it immediately inspired the first chapter of my new novel. I envisioned a group of noble Venetian ladies from the Renaissance taking their ease on the roof of a palazzo along the Grand Canal, playing games, laughing. In today’s Venice, affluent or not, ladies go wherever they please, dressed how they please. But in Renaissance Venice, aristocratic women did things a little differently.

According to Patricia Fortini Brown’s Private Lives in Renaissance Venice, young noble ladies, should they be out on the street, would have been covered in a veil. They didn’t run around the city just for fun, face uncovered. And in their homes, general visitors likely wouldn’t bump into one of these ladies; they would have been kept away to more private chambers furthest from the front door. For the most part, male servants kept to men’s quarters and female servants to the ladies’ rooms. Now, as for married Venetian noblewomen, they were far more seen and far less veiled, though still would have remained modest in dress and behavior.

So where did all the aristocratic women, married or unwed, go for fresh air and fun? The altane above their houses and palazzos! An altana was a covered roof terrace, though many terraces were also uncovered. Eat, play games, get some sun, sing, dance, tend to plants and play with your pets. Girl party!

I love this painting because it gives us a little glimpse into this sort of Venetian setting, from 1500! The lady that is sitting tall is said to be a newlywed. How do we know? Young brides wore those strands of pearls. Don’t ask me how you’re supposed to differentiate the long-time wedded from the newlyweds…as didn’t all Venetian noblewomen drip in pearls? We’d have to ask a historian. Look at those slashed sleeves, look at those six-inch chopines (those red healed clog shoes at the left). Look at the pearls beaded around the necks of their dresses. I wonder what that missive laying on the ground says. I bet it is an intriguing letter filled with scandalous gossip! What are they doing with so many pets altogether? Wouldn’t that toothy dog take a bite out of that parrot? Love it!

Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice by Joanne Ferraro

For my book Venice and a new novel I’m currently working on (which takes place in Venice, Treviso and Padua), reading a lot about the city’s history has been an important part of the research. But let’s be real, it’s hardly work when it’s just so fascinating! And though there is a lot to gain from general history books, I find that the more detailed works really help you understand the times and places one wants to learn about. There are a number of such books about Venice that I’m nuts about and have read multiple times. I’ll be sure to share them all with you!

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Today’s book is Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice by Joanne Ferraro. This one is a priceless gem!

The last thing Ferraro’s book is, is a dry account of marriage unions in Renaissance Venice. Her research shares detailed insight into women’s rights, property & ownership, legalities & politics, arranged unions & contracts, courtesans, infidelity, wedding dowries, domestic abuse, prostitution, and sex. What makes this work particularly moving is that it isn’t just a general description of the times and practices, but rather, it calls upon a lot of direct quotes and written accounts from the people who lived it and those legal institutions who documented and passed judgment on these marriage disputes.

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Now, this book doesn’t really give a whole lot of insight into happy unions. It’s really about what the title suggests, marriage wars. I’m not certain that things have changed much over the centuries as countless marriages end poorly today, and sometimes over similar problems that Renaissance Venetians encountered. However, as I read this compilation of marriage stories, I grimaced continually and held my breath for the outcomes of each individual dispute (some of which are lost to history, argh!). Forget gossip magazines and reality tv, read this book instead for your dose of marriage intrigue and history!

Further, Ferraro is a seriously professional writer. If I’d recounted these tales on paper, I’m not sure that I’d have been able to help but to make more direct judgments of those parties involved. However, she keeps an open mind and an eloquent pen as she recounts these folks’ situations, delicate with assumptions and name-calling. You’re a better person than I, Ms. Ferraro, and an awe worthy, even-handed teller of history.

Joanne Ferraro also wrote Venice: A History of the Floating CityNefarious Crimes, Contested Justice, Illicit Sex and Infanticide in the Republic of Venice, 1557-1789…and Family and Public Life in Brescia, 1580-1650: The Foundations of power in the Venetian State. I’m cutting off the Netflix…these books are all the entertainment I need!

Crazy for Cookware!

One of my favorite pastimes, especially during the colder months, is to go to the flea market and the antique shops. I say the flea market, because there is only one locally that I have ever visited. It’s the Kane County Flea Market in St. Charles, IL and it’s enormous. There are so many vendors under tents, and inside re-purposed long barns, that you can’t see everything unless you spend an entire day, and even then you still won’t see everything.

Last time, I had a blast digging through tables of old cookware from one vendor. You know what I’ve noticed? When women spy a pile of junk, and there are a whole bunch of other ladies around that table of junk, they’ll hurry over to see what the fuss is about. Before you know it, there are 20 ladies getting a little pushy over the junk. They get competitive about who’ll find the best junk deal first! He-he! I love it! I am guilty! I’ll dig in the junk with you gals any time! I came home with more vintage jars, ceramic and glass cookware than was necessary on that particular outing. I don’t think my boyfriend knew what to say when I showed him all that I brought home….as I grinned like a crazed flea market monster with her treasures.

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Though there are lots of things I like to look at on these outings (cookware, vintage pearl jewelry, antique books, embroidered handkerchiefs, historic photographs and albums, etc.), I wanted to share these two lovely little compacts. All I know is that they were produced in what was then West Germany in the 1950s & 60s. They used a variety of prints from 18th century paintings. You can see a great many more on etsy and ebay, but I personally love to hunt for them at the antique shops! I adore these two!

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Interestingly, though these are your average compact size, they also come in a larger size (about like a softball). I found one once in a teeny-tiny antique shop and bought it for a steal! But then, I accidently threw away the bag it was in with other empty bags and it was lost forever. I still sniffle when I think about it.

Spiders In My Mailbox

I live just a few blocks from beautiful Lake Michigan. I can spend an entire summer afternoon in the sand with my lawn chair and a book; the sound of the waves is soothing. Our beach has some grassy dunes and is surrounded by beautiful trees. Some days, the waves are so large you think you’re at the ocean. Just at the end of August, thousands of enormous dragonflies fly over the sand and just over the water. I need to capture that somehow, it’s so beautiful.

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Now, I grew up around green and I know bugs. More than that, I love bugs. I really, really do. I don’t know where I got it, but I notice the tiniest movements and will go to inspect. I have seen the coolest bugs over the years! One of my favorite college classes was Natural Field Science at McHenry County College. We spent a summer traipsing about fields and woods. It was a small class, maybe 8 students. Once, we all got lost in a state park, in tall grassy fields that went on and on, under the scorching sun, in what seemed to be 100 degree weather. We really suffered that day, we were lucky no one got sun sickness. It was kind of scary. This was before cell phones with maps. Ah, memories!

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During that class, we each had to make a collection of bugs (here is my box below). I enjoyed catching and studying them, but I am still sad that I killed some of those little guys (except that one that stung me). See, I think bugs are pretty cool and I don’t like to smush them. I always catch them and let them outside. It can be time consuming, but I think it’s good karma.

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And though I’m not usually bugged (tee-hee), I’ve got spiders in my mailbox and they’re being pests (tee-hee-hee). I have spiders all over the front of my house from early spring to late fall and these aren’t the same ones I grew up with, like Banana Spiders (actually called black and yellow garden spiders), Wolf Spiders, Daddy Long Legs, Jumping Spiders, etc. I’ve got Funnel Weavers, tons of them, big ones! They are also known as Grass Spiders and though I’m sure they are common all over, this is the first time I’ve ever noticed them. My hunch has been that they are grassy lakeside dwellers, but who knows. They build some pretty cool cone-like webs where they sit in wait for prey. The webs are also strong! And they like to make them in my mailbox.

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The mailbox just had a wash yesterday, and yet, as I put my hand into the box just now, I was a little surprised at the strength of a thick web that attached and tugged at my hand (this is all that was left after). A small mouse would have had a hard time getting out of that thing.

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And here is the culprit…he moved in last night and quickly went to work on his web. He’s really big and really fast. The front of the house is regularly crawling with these guys. My boyfriend came home one evening and pulled a large bottle of peppermint oil out of the grocery bag. I puzzled at what we needed it for. Minty cupcake frosting? Minty brownies? Minty lattes? Christmas in July? The spiders…he said. I thought that was a pretty clever idea and I’ve sprayed it liberally. The front of the house sometimes smells like candy canes. Only, it isn’t working. They are super spiders! But the minty scent is nice.

Ah well. I don’t have the heart to squish them. As long as they don’t bite me. This is why my neighbors see me once a week standing on a stool and fishing around in my mailbox like a weirdo for twenty minutes…I help the little dudes out without squishing them. You should have seen the mama spider three weeks ago who had baby spiders covering her back. I tried to delicately remove her and the baby spiders ran everywhere. That was different. Good karma, remember? I also don’t want the mail lady to stop delivering our mail.

I like this spider site (just for Illinois spiders). And my favorite reference bug book is Insects Spiders and other Terrestrial Arthropods by George McGavin. The photos are excellent, you can really identify what you’ve got.

Japanese Robatayaki at Roka Akor!

Do you know what makes a dreary, rainy evening amazing? Fantastic food! As the skies opened up on Friday evening and warnings of flash floods loomed, I completely forgot the weather and enjoyed a cheery repast at Roka Akor in Skokie, IL. Roka Akor offers contemporary Japanese cuisine, Robatayaki to be exact. Robata for short, is basically slow grilling over a fire and oh, so delicious! Everything I tried left me speechless.

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To start, their Roasted Beet Salad with Jalapeno Miso Dressing and Smoked Almonds. I think beet salad is the cat’s pajamas and order it wherever I go. I hesitated with this one as I worried about the jalapeno…I wasn’t raised eating spicy, I get faint with one red pepper flake. I’m working on it. However, this salad had the flavor without the fire and those smoked almonds…can I take a jar of those home with me please?

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Then there was the Sweet Corn and Edamame Dumplings with Soy Vinaigrette. Excellent! I appreciated their crisped bottoms, perfectly chewy. I’m not a fan of soggy dumplings, these were perfect and the vinaigrette…can I take a jar of that home with me please?

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Then there were the Robata Grilled Diver Sea Scallops with Yuzu Aioli and Wasabi Peas. Large, plump scallops, perfectly grilled and dressed, light and not at all fishy.

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For the main course, I had the Skuna Bay Salmon with Ginger Teriyaki and House Pickled Cucumbers and my handsome dinner companion had the Madagascan Jumbo Tiger Prawn with Yuzu Kosho Chili Paste. As for our sides, the Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Japanese Mustard Vinaigrette and Bonito Flakes and the Cremini Mushrooms with Soy Garlic Butter. We always share our main dishes, so lucky for me I always get to taste everything on the table. The prawn was detached from its shell and cut into perfectly grilled bites; the meat was wonderful. Just be sure you can take the heat! My salmon had that crispy, flavorful grill on top that I love and that ginger teriyaki, can I take a jar…! Those mushrooms were divine and we couldn’t stop nibbling the Brussels sprouts. If you aren’t a Brussels sprouts lover, that’s because you haven’t tried them at Roka Akor yet.

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For dessert, we shared the Green Tea Custard with Caramelized Banana and Chocolate Pearls…天国! It was a very special dessert, light and not too sweet. Several delightful flavors and a perfectly whipped texture, the little chocolate pearls were fun to chew, too. I have been down on bananas lately. I’ve been eating them for breakfast my whole life, and they are getting to be a bore. As I dreamily enjoyed our dessert, I said, “If only my breakfast banana could taste like this.”

It was a wonderful dining experience and the service was very professional, attentive and timely. It is very evident that the staff works as a seamless team at this location, one plate dropped, another picked up, a menu offered, a glass cleared. We sat at a smaller table and never once had to worry about clutter, or wait for what we’d requested. 幻想的な Roka Akor Skokie! You’ve got the art of fine dining down!

Daily Life in Venice at the time of Casanova by Maurice Andrieux

I love getting lost in a book. Lately, I’ve several times been reminded that to be a good writer, you must read a lot. I better keep with it! I’ve always wanted a room that was entirely dedicated to books, my own library. It would have a fireplace with a big chair before it, Edward Gorey sketches hanging crookedly here and there, and my cat. But, I wouldn’t smoke a pipe. I’m allergic. I wish there was enough time for all those books I want to read. And while I occasionally tackle lengthy, in-depth works of history, isn’t it just refreshing to have an approachable book that is as insightful as ever without crushing your lap with its 1,000 pages? In a conversation yesterday, the notion that it can be even harder to craft shorter messages than long ones came up. And I think that is often true, to be short and sweet as they say, takes work.

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When speaking of books that recap Venice’s history, for me, the best I’ve read so far for keeping it succinct is French writer Maurice Andrieux’s Daily Life in Venice at the time of Casanova (1969). If you are interested in getting your dose of Venetian history without committing to reading a large work, this one is as precise as ever. His chapters are so simply organized: SocietyLife, Manners and CustomsLove and WomenReligionArtistic and Intellectual Life…etc. The writing is so clean and digestible that even his coverage of the political climate during the 18th century (chapters I usually have to get my thinking cap on for) feels like a walk in the park. Further, his descriptions of life have a sense of humanity in them, not overly verbose or dryly factual, you feel connected to the Venetians he’s writing about.

Born in 1892, Andrieux has since passed on, but his book remains as fresh and appreciated as ever. He also wrote Daily Life in Papal Rome in the Eighteenth Century and two other Italian histories (of the Medici family and Sicily, though I don’t believe they have been translated to English). Je vous remercie pour vos livres M. Andrieux!

Barcarole of the Venetian Gondolier

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Do you know what a barcarole is? It is a traditional song that a Venetian gondolier would sing. The songs are sung in the Venetian language (not Italian) and sound much like opera, they flow with the oaring of the gondolier. Folk music meets opera; it’s lovely. Listen to the song “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour”. This barcarole is from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. You’ve probably heard it before. Now imagine you’re lounging in a gondola and floating through Venice…serenity!

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I was sitting in the boat above. There was a gondola traffic jam…without the exhaust fumes, or road rage.

Now, these barcarole are based on traditional songs, not always what you’ll hear sung by gondoliers in Venezia today. As I describe in my book Venice, gondoliers get all kinds of requests for Italian songs that aren’t traditionally Venetian, and they aren’t happy about it. They often feel pressured to sing what is requested, because you’re paying for the ride. So if you want to keep things traditional and you’re inclined to request a gondolier sing for your float along the canals, be sure to ask for a Venetian barcarole!

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There is a lovely little book by Donna Leon, Gondola. It also comes with a CD of Venetian barcarole! I’ve played it over and over! Ms. Leon has designed a very special compilation of Venetian paintings filled with canal scenes overflowing with gondolas and snapshots of historic daily life, as well as short chapters to compliment, which give you insight into all things gondola. This book is a treasure!

Alfresco dining at Bistro Bordeaux!

The weather turned from its uninvited chill earlier in the week and is now as lovely as ever here in Evanston. For several days, the sun has been shining, the breeze warm and the squirrels and chipmunks having a field day with all of the falling acorns. Yesterday, I watched a ruby throated hummingbird buzz around a flowering bush in my yard. Those little birds amaze me; I’m fascinated every time I see one. They are just so itty-bitty and fast!

If the weather is holding summer temperatures and sunny skies where you are, then there is something you must do, before it’s too late! Go eat alfresco! Take advantage of the out-of-doors…a picnic, a blanket on the beach, your favorite restaurant with seating on the sidewalk, a sandwich on a park bench, or a BBQ on your back porch.

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I enjoyed a lovely dinner at a traditional French bistro, Bistro Bordeaux here in Evanston on Tuesday evening…alfresco of course! To start, some chilled champagne and East Coast oysters (oh yes, I’m taking full advantage of the last delicious moments of summer left to us here in frigid northern Illinois).

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Then, I had their Moules Frites Marinieres (“…mussels steamed in white wine, shallot, garlic, parsley, butter”). They are served with Bistro Bordeaux’s addicting beef tallow fries. Turn up the volume and click on their website…makes you feel like you’re in Paris, no? Now check out their menu…ooh la la! The dining inside the restaurant will transport you: bistro style seating, warm lighting, ambling French music, spectacular French food…wait, I mean spectaculaire!

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I did not have dessert because I took the cheese selections home with me to enjoy the next day. I do this often…I can’t help it. J’aime le fromage…like, love cheese. Spread it on a toasty baguette slice with a little honey, heaven! I’ll take cheese over chocolate any day!

Whatever your favorites, go enjoy them outside…while you still can! Bon appetit!

Pearl Earrings Giveaway!

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Portrait of a Lady: Francesco Montemezzano. A Renaissance Venetian women of the house of Contarini!

Pearls…I LOVE PEARLS! In fact, I have a mild obsession with them. I’m not certain when this love for pearls started. Was it with all the history books and paintings I’ve looked at over the years? Was it with the gorgeous strands my mother has crafted for costumes I’ve worn? Was it after the first time I saw Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring? No, really…look at the pearl in that painting! Was it during my travels in China where pearl vendors were abundant and I was in pearl heaven? I don’t know, but I think they are the most lovely and I could wear them everyday.

As I write my new book (a historical fiction thriller taking place during Venice’s plague of 1576…scary stuff), I think a lot about what everyone was wearing during the Renaissance. Oh man, it’s just so tough looking at all those gorgeous old paintings filled with rich clothing covered in pearls, all in the name of research. Tee-hee! In Italy, pearls were it! And in Venice, a city in the sea, people were dripping in them (at least those who could afford it were). According to Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present, Claire Phillips illustrates just how serious Venetians took their pearls! In the early 1500s, if you made a fake pearl and were caught selling it…your right hand would be cut off and you would be banished from Venice for a decade. Poor fellow wouldn’t be making jewelry after that!

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Because today is a beautiful day! Because every gal needs a pair of pearls! Because you are as fabulous as any Renaissance lady…I’m giving away a delicate pair of pearl earrings today!  Sterling silver, freshwater drop pearls (purplish-pink) by Brenda Duncan of The Black Pearl, purchased at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. To enter, all you have to do is write the name of your favorite gemstone in the comments for this post. Your name will go in a bowl and I’ll select a random winner one week from today! Spread the word ladies!

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Divino’s Gelato from Italy!

Do you know why I’m smiling in this photo? Well, there is the obvious reason…I was in Venice. Then there is the other obvious reason…I’m eating gelato. Actually we should say gelati (plural) as it appears that I am eating both a cone and a little cup, I like to live on the wild side when it comes to gelato.

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So imagine the look on my face when while perusing the grocery for something new and interesting, I found these!! Made in Italy, Divino. Fruity gelato served in the fruit! I bought one of each flavor…wild side, remember?

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Last night I tried the Black Diamond Plum. My first reaction was, “Oh, how pretty.” Then I bit in. Brain freeze! So, I looked on the package just now and it says to let the plum sit out for 10 minutes before you nibble. Ohhhhh! Suffering through my icy headache, my second reaction was, “This tastes like sorbet, not gelato.” Again looking at the back of the package, I see now that the plum fruit is in fact filled with sorbet. ‘Gelato’ on the front of the box, ‘sorbet’ on the back of the box…you’re confusing me Divino!

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There is a connection however…ancient Italians used to bring snow down from the mountains and top them with things like wine, fruit, honey…the first snow cones and sorbet! Gelato derives from that, with the added ingredient of milk. Divino’s Roman Kiwi is filled with gelato. Their Apulian Peach, Black Diamond Plum, Ciaculli Tangerine and Amalfi Lemon are filled with sorbet (it’s a go vegans!). Divino is also non-GMO verified.

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The plum was delicious, and the fruit shell edible. Refreshing! They are also served with cute little neon spoons…only I didn’t see that because I was too eager to receive my brain freeze. Today I’m going to try the Amalfi Lemon and I’m prepared having read the directions, you have to let it sit out for 20 minutes before enjoying. I’ll have to walk out of the room to avoid temptation!

Farewell, Summer Salad!

It’s getting rather chilly here in northern Illinois…brrrrr! I had a campfire with my folks last weekend, we must have known the chill was coming! Wasn’t it summer just yesterday? They’ve already had the pumpkins and potted fall mums displayed at the grocery store this last week and though autumn is my favorite season, I’m just not ready. In fact, I spent a greater part of this morning daydreaming about summer salads. Yes, I wake every morning and daydream about what’s on my menu for the day…don’t you? Below are three salads that I still swoon to remember from Ristorante Antico Pignolo in Venice…

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The fresh eggplant salad with ripe red tomatoes and chiffonade basil leaves drizzled with balsamic reduction and olive oil…faint.

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The traditional Caprese with soft rounds of mozzarella, tomatoes and bright basil leaves, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic reduction and topped with black olives…insert heavenly singing here.

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And the simplest, yet most delicious salad ever invented…ripe melon and tender, slightly salty prosciutto…I’m seeing stars.

If you’d like to have a go at making the melon and prosciutto salad, you’ll find inspiration here with Erin Gleeson of The Forest Feast. Her delightful site and cookbook are filled with splendid watercolors and enchanting forest arrangements that make her realistically simple recipes look oh so pretty!

For the Caprese salad, try Pioneer Woman’s recipe. She says she, “…love Caprese Salad so much it actually hurts.” I know how she feels!

The Politics Of Washing: Real Life In Venice by Polly Coles

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I’m currently reading The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles and enjoying every word! The book is Ms. Coles’ memoir of a move to Venice from England with her husband (who is Italian) and her kids (four of them). Though I initially expected a hilarious romp of an adventure, the author has a way of making the comic (of which there is plenty) understated and poetic, while describing the rougher realities of living in Venice, in a hauntingly beautiful way. It is a rich read, sharing her experiences around the school system, tourism, the seasonal acqua alta flooding, holidays, her interactions with the locals, and how the ancient architecture is (or isn’t) fitting in with a modernizing city. Reading it, I’m perpetually excited and sad, moved by Coles’ descriptions of that glorious city and its history while still nervous for how Venice is and will adapt to current threats (architectural destruction, flooding and the vise hold of the tourist industry). I heartily recommend this read. Coles keeps even the gloomiest observations playful, shares insight into a strangely aquatic daily life and provides an elegantly written memoir.

The Guilde of St. George!

Though I could spend days sharing all of the reasons why I think the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin is so magical, alas as the days of summer fade, so must my pen draw elsewhere…but not without a thank you to the Guilde of St. George, all of those who reenact the court of Queen Elizabeth I. of England!

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29 years ago, my mother dressed me as a little fairy and brought me to Bristol. I saw the Queen and her court and I was hooked! So mesmerized in fact, that I spent many a winter looking forward to summer and the faire, daydreaming about courtly history and begging my mother to make me costume after costume. The amazingly patient and talented artist that she is, she sewed and sewed and sewed. In 1998, I auditioned to the Guilde of St. George and was so proud to be a part of this family of Elizabethan actors for four years. I still covet the gowns that my mother made and often peek in her costume closet where they are stored. Though I’m a little biased having once been a part of this guilde, wearing the gowns, dancing the dances, learning and sharing the history, I write this as the little girl in 1986. Guilde of St. George: You are magical, everything you do is worth it!

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This photo is of actress Jennifer Higgins who plays Elizabeth. Here, she is accepting little trinkets from children who lined up with fairies to see the Queen. Children remember these special moments and they inspire them! It inspires them to learn about history, to read more, to imagine! I may still have my little certificate from when three Bristol Queens ago, I was made a lady-in-waiting with a tap to the shoulders with a sword, as little boys were knighted. Ah, memories!

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From the Queen’s audiences where there are entertainments, matters of state and courtly disputes, to the details in every costume, to the Queen’s guard and household…there is history to be learned. Every member of the guilde plays a real person from the time of Queen Elizabeth, and if you strike up a conversation, individual stories will unfold!

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I commend you gentle lords and ladies! What a wonderful moment!

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And who am I kidding, I’m not a little girl anymore and I’m still mesmerized! The swoosh of a feather fan, the courtly bow, the bows and puffs of the sleeve, the twinkling adornments, the embroidered collars, the full skirts swishing, the plaits in the hair, the goblets and kerchiefs! History is beautiful!

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Thank you for sharing history with everyone that visits the faire, and for all of the wonderful memories! “Merry meet, merry part and merry meet again!”

Bristol’s Exceptional Grounds!

This week, I’m paying special tribute to the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Today’s reason why the faire is so magical? The magnificent park and the staff who maintain, beautify and keep it safe! Just look how beautiful Bristol is! As someone who loves the out-of-doors, I appreciate a day at the faire.

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A place to roam…

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A place to dance!

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A place to gallop!

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A place by the fire…

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A place to be entertained!

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A place to make merry under the trees!

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Village lanes to eat and shop…

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A place to reenact history!

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A place for archery! Ok…I had to sneak that one in. That’s me! I’d forgotten how awesome archery is (flashback to high school gym class). Can Santa fit an archery set down my chimney this year?

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A place to wander…

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A place by the pond…

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The grounds are simply a place to love!

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An especial thank you to the Bristol security team! With thousands of visitors each summer, they see many folks in need of medical attention…especially on those excruciatingly hot days when heat sickness sneaks up on a patron or two. They help find lost children, usher sprained ankles, bee stings and medieval accidents (just kidding) to first aid, and make sure the grounds are safe. Thank you!

A few fairies and witches…a lot of magic!

This source of magic from the Bristol Renaissance Faire is very reputable…the fairies and the witches!

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The fairies can be found all over Bristol, but they are very sneaky! Sometimes you’ll find them up in a tree, or hiding in a thicket of green. Sometimes they are within a foot of you and you don’t even notice until someone points it out…they’re stealth like that. We can also attribute this to the well-known fact (as I was told by one citizen of Bristol) that adults usually don’t see fairies, only children. So how do you know when the fairies are about? If you start sneezing a lot, it means the fairy folk are nearby. And I thought I just had allergies!

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The witches are hilarious! Every time they pose for someone’s photo, they scowl and grimace. One witch carries a little enclosed basket with a green frog in it (don’t worry…not a real frog). She’d turned someone into that frog with a spell, she’d said. I heard a man ask her if she could turn his wife into a frog? She said she’d love to, if only there were enough room in the basket! And then she grimaced some more. One right after the other, witty little comebacks and expressions, so funny!

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The witches delighted a crowd by singing improvisational songs to the strumming of a guitarist. Witches…you need to make an album! Those songs of doom were delightful and so clever! Encore!

Grab your mask and make merry!

All who enter the Bristol Renaissance Faire will gravitate to those themes that interest them the most. If you like action and the clanging of steel you’ll head down to the joust and watch knights swing a sword at one another. If you dream of tiptoeing through an enchanted forest, you’re going to fly over to fairyland. If you like military history, you won’t miss the reenactments by the Guilde of St. Michael. As for me, I love everything at the faire! But this season, as my interactive novel Venice approached its release, that city’s history may have affected my brain a little! And so, though Bristol, England isn’t Venice, Italy…well, I’m pretty sure I spied a Venetian or two! Just another reason why I think the faire in magical!

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Oh my! What is this Venetian plague doctor doing in Bristol? I hope we’ll all escape the pestilence! Awesome mask!

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This is Lord Fopulence from right out of the 18th century. He’d fit right in at the Venetian Carnival!

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These two look like roaming Venetians to me!

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Puppeteer Gabriel Q would captivate crowds in Piazza San Marco during the Carnevale! Check out this puppet builder-costumer-performer’s site…look for those traditional Venetian masks, they’re true art!

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The powder, the blush, that beauty mark! All she needs is a towering wig and she’ll be ready for a ball at Carnival. Fabulous!

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He’s ready to sail the Adriatic Sea and defend La Serenissima!

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And here’s to At Your Service, a commedia dell’arte troupe! Venice wants to know what you’re doing in Bristol?! Their masks, their traditional commedia characters, their truly hilarious acts…fantastico!

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Furthermore, At Your Service is affiliated with Piccolo Theater in Evanston, IL. Piccolo Theater focuses on the art of comedy to both entertain and bring together the local community. They even have comedic youth camps and classes. Be sure to check out this season’s performances!

Huzzah to the costumers!

My next reason why the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin is so fantastic? Costumes! Here’s to the costumers selling their creations at the faire, those patrons who wear them, and all those who design and wear their own!

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Like this couple, seen here donning the costumes of Felix Needleworthy.

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Those excellent works of Pendragon!

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The whimsical art of Pandoras Kloset.

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This rich long coat at Silverleaf Costumes.

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The sumptuous gowns on these noble ladies delighted everyone they passed!

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All of the awesomely innovative steampunk creations!

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And the delightful ensembles worn by all of the Bristol citizens!

An Inspiring Team at Pure Barre Evanston!

A very special thank you to the team at Pure Barre Evanston for your kind congratulations on the release of Venice!

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Pure Barre is a fitness class that uses the ballet barre to help clients get fit and toned…but it’s much more than that! The studio environment is uplifting, the music inspiring, the staff supportive and challenging, and the clients are always friendly and positive. Even the chalkboard announcing fun events and studio news makes me smile! It is the sort of place that contributes to a healthy you in every way, each time you visit. To the Evanston Team, thank you!

A little time, a great moment!

This week, I’ll be sharing just a few of the reasons why I think the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin is such a magical place! Yesterday was Labor Day and bittersweet; though it was the last day of the faire, it was a beautiful day and what an amazing performance by all! Thank you to the actors, artists, musicians and crafters who made this season so memorable!

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Today’s reason why the faire is so amazing? All those performers who engage in memorable conversations with patrons! Now, all of the actors delight and entertain guests through their shows, whether it be a sword fight on stage, a funny street act or the dazzling courtiers reenacting a feast hosting the Queen herself. However, I just can’t help but smile when I see those little moments where performers are sitting to some small talk, sharing a story, and bringing the guest into the Renaissance!

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To learn a little about wildlife…

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To be shown how to weave a basket…

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To hear some forgotten history…

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To share a laugh…priceless!

Welcome to Bristol!

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Do you know what puts a daylong, fixed smile on my face? A trip to the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin! I’ve been attending, participating in and loving this wonderful place for almost 30 years! Yes, I skipped about in a costume as a little girl there, mesmerized by Queen Elizabeth I. and her dazzling court while pretending to be a noble courtier!

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What is the Bristol Renaissance Faire? It is a magical village where it is always a summer day, and a festival day! The year is 1574 in England and the Queen is on her summer progress. Today, she is visiting the village of Bristol and all of the noble courtiers, villagers, musicians, artists and entertainers are at their ready to celebrate her arrival!

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Why do I love the faire? It’s history! Actors and artists abound to bring you a little insight into the past, whether they be knights in the joust, courtly dancers, crafters, Renaissance musicians or hilarious street performing villagers! The festival grounds themselves are vast and out-of-doors. I could find a bench under a shady tree and sit all day. With all of the roaming actors, costumed patrons, delightful music and nature, it’s a truly delightful way to spend a summer day!

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As it is Labor Day weekend and the summer is drawing to an end, so too is this season’s Bristol Faire. This week, I’ll be sharing some of the many reasons this place is so magical. For all you lovers of history, I hope that it will inspire you to ready yourself a costume for next season (if you have a local Renaissance Faire where you are), or to check out what kind of historical reenactments you have close to home, whether it be a ball at the Venetian Carnival, a Civil War reenactment or an old-timey Wild West Town. They are wonderful places to both get your dose of history and be entertained!

Venetian Artist Pietro Longhi

Much of my book Venice illustrates events, people and lifestyles from the 18th century. As the novel centers on a visit to present-day Venice during the Carnevale, where costumes and masks from the 18th century would be seen in abundance, it was important to share histories from the 1700s. Many serious participants look like they just dropped out of the Baroque era. It’s fabulous!

I love looking at clothing from history and I love exceptional costumes that mimic those long lost styles. Whether you are interested in Venice, 18th century history, or costuming, there is an artist whose work you must peruse. Pietro Longhi, Venetian painter, 1701-1785. His works are just amazing! Pretend you scampered around Venice during the 1700s, through the calle and into people’s homes and snapped a great many photos…Longhi’s works have given us a very special glimpse into the lives of Venetians of that century and he was a prolific painter, so he covered a lot of ground. If you are in Venice, be sure to visit the Gallerie dell’Accademia to see a few of his pieces up close.

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Here above is Longhi’s The Tailor. I could spend a lot of time zooming in the view, just to get an actual understanding of the finer details. What’s on that maid’s serving tray? What is that child taunting that puppy with? How did the lady fashion her hair? Love it!

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And here, The Dancing Lesson. Look at how wide the panniers! Look how lush the sitting woman’s fur trim! Look at that man’s wig! And, imagine the music.

If you would like a compilation of all of Longhi’s paintings, I suggest finding a copy of Longhi by Terisio Pignatti. I could page through my copy all day!

Here’s to good food at Boltwood!

When I think of Venice, I think of a city that remembers to enjoy the good things in life. A stop in the piazza to grab an espresso with a friend and watch the world go by, an umbra of wine in the afternoon at the local bacaro with a nibble of savory cicchetti, a stroll through the morning fish market to stir up fresh ingredients for tonight’s repast, open windows embracing the sounds of flowing water and a singing gondolier, a stop in the local campo to catch up with your neighbors…

With that in mind, I intend to share snippets of not only Venice, but also those things that remind me of what that city embodies; the great joys in life, like good food!

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Last night, I feasted at Boltwood in Evanston, IL. The city is just north of Chicago and hosts some excellent restaurants. Boltwood serves seasonal New American cuisine using the freshest ingredients. The photo above was of their arugula & La Quercia (prosciutto) salad with sliced plums and grilled Brun-uusto (cheese). I’d had it there before, and the treat is that they change up the fruit in the salad! If you haven’t tried prosciutto and fruit together on one plate, you must!

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I also enjoyed these Island Creek Oysters served perfectly chilled with a glass of rosato brut (from the Veneto region in Italy). So refreshing on a hot summer evening!

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As for my main dish, my eyes grew as large as quarters with the very first bite of their tilefish served with aioli, succotash and bacon. The word delicious doesn’t cut it. A lightly crisped fish on the top with delicate meat within, a nice portion of fresh vegetables and a sauce that I was tempted to eat with a spoon.

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For dessert, the chocolate cake and ice cream topped with tart kumquat slices and perfectly toasted chopped almonds. Delightful and pretty!

If you find yourself in Evanston, reserve a table! I like to sit at their intimate chef-side seating where you can get an eyeful of the dishes as they come out! The hostess is welcoming, the servers are sincerely pleasant and knowledgeable, and the manager attentive. The ambiance is dreamy and the food, spectacular!

Venice is here!!!

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Venice is here!!! And I can’t wait for you to read the adventure! Whether you are a lover of Venice, Italy, intrigued by interactive fiction where you choose your fate, or scenic travel and history are your interests, I sincerely hope Venice will excite and delight every one of you!

Venice is available here! Also available on Amazon!

Thank you to all of my family, friends and colleagues for your advice, energy, ideas, patience and support! This has been the most fascinating yet challenging project and I could not be more thankful for all of you! Thank you to the readers, now and in the future, of Venice and this site. It’s a privilege to share my passion for all things Venice with you. And thank you, to Venice! For your warm and inviting citizens, for your pure beauty and mystery, for your amazing history! Thank you!

Let’s Have A Celebrazione!

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I took this photo at Ristorante Antico Pignolo located in the Sestiere di San Marco on calle Specchieri. The meals that I enjoyed there were some of the best that I have ever, ever had. While basking in the delights of one such meal, I looked at the empty table nearest my own where a group had just departed, guests who seemed to have had a wonderful time. I captured this photo because I thought the cluster of glasses represented the splendid celebrazione that had just taken place there…I also puzzled over the number of glasses!

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This was the divine chocolate mousse cake I enjoyed for dessert that evening. I thought the bright red currants, single yellow cherry tomato yet on its leaf, and the drizzle of chocolate and salty caramel sauces so picturesque. A crust at the bottom was made out of chopped pistachios. The sauces remind me of olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar drizzle.

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And this photo was my table at the end of the night. I could nibble on one of those Venetian bussola buranello cookies right now! Yes, I had cake and cookies for dessert!

Today, I have things in my life worth a celebrazione! Blessings to be thankful for and loved ones to cherish, accomplished milestones to celebrate! How about you? Here’s wishing you good things in your life today! For all of those things, celebrate! Saluti!

Dreaming of Tramezzini!

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I love sandwiches! I mean, what’s more pleasant than mindlessly chewing on good bread? You can fill a sandwich with just about anything, which is convenient when you’re running low on the conventional ingredients…haven’t I tried a sandwich with green beans in it somewhere? And, sandwiches are portable. You can munch on one while riding down the Grand Canal in a vaporetto!

I usually mash up my eggs and smother them in mayo for an egg salad sandwich, but today, I had one lone hard-boiled egg to work with. So, I cut it into pretty oblong slices and laid it into the sandwich. After cutting it in half and looking at it, my first impression was, “A tramezzino!”

If you haven’t tried tramezzini, you must try them in Venice! The first ones I ever gobbled were from the paninoteca (sandwich shop) called Bar all’ Angolo in Campo Santo Stefano. Tramezzini consist of two chewy slices of white bread with the crusts removed, are stuffed with delicious fillings and then cut into triangles. Just a regular sandwich you say? Not at all! Crab, asparagus, pickles, olives, prosciutto, shrimp, pesto, oh my! Look up Venetian tramezzini and you’ll see what I’m talking about. My sandwich today failed the tramezzini qualifications (wheat bread, crusts still attached), but it tasted a little like one and I was in Venice!

A Passage From Venice…

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The scene captures the essence of something otherworldly; the cautious stir of a minuet long forgotten, clinking crystal and the warm press of a perfumed crowd, flickering light and laughter unbidden. The masks are a category of amazement all their own, artistic creations of every conceivable face type. There are thousands of shimmering sequins, scenes of night and day, animals wild and demure and many fully painted faces with long lashes, glossy lips and tears of glass. Some are half, secreting just the eyes and others are complete, disguising one’s visage entirely. There is soft velvet and shiny tin, paper mache and coarse fabric, carved wood and delicate lace. This is the house of the mask, a museum of disguise both past and present. Here are all convened: libertines and lovers, ghosts born of the dark and angels exuding the light. Walking slowly along the edge of the ballroom, your spirits high and your chest heavy with excitement, you take in the splendor of the costumes of this night. The wigs are monumental in all of their glorious fashions. Men and women alike aspiring to the heavens with their cottony bouffants adorned with garish and magical additions: tinsel, stuffed birds, miniature model ships, bows, lace, gaudy gems. Each face is powdered and vainly made up with beauty marks, arched brows, penciled lips and rosy cheeks. And, how could one begin to enumerate the dresses: haughty, desirous, glorious and bold. Some women host panniers so wide, they expand the length of six persons side by side. Yet each of these ladies continues to move in every way elegantly, to your delight. All around are tight corsets, silky ribbons, strung pearls, tall heels and beautiful stitchwork that only could be found presently. The men are refined with expertly tailored tricorne hats, calf-flaunting breeches, lacy linen shirts, cravats and brassy buttons closing up fitted vests and fashionable jackets. The sight already bursting with extravagance and every unique detail, how can you be even more delighted with each passing entertainer? There is the court jester and his beloved dog donned in a belled collar; his merry yelps bring a jingle. A trio of women garbed as glittered wood nymphs clad in ethereal wings (blue, pink and purple) tiptoe about. There are characters of every sort: a magician, a storyteller, a fire handler and a gypsy who reads palms…