Welcome To The Venetian Carnival…A World of Wonders!

The Venetian Carnival 2017 begins in just 3 days, running from February 11-28! Though I will not be attending the glorious festivities in person, I can still reminisce upon my past attendance and cherish Carnival from afar. Perusing photos from when my costumer mother Lita and I attended in 2005 (a trip that inspired my book Venice), I was treated once again to the sight of remarkable raiment…

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What I have always found fascinating about the mask and costume culture of the Carnival (namely throughout Venice’s illustrious history), is the anonymity it gives the individual and the new guise it may offer them. It empowers one to cast away social pressures, and become whoever or whatever they wish. The pauper mingled freely with the aristocrat, the infirm beamed with good health, and the old were filled with youth once more…

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Here was a pearly queen with her court of incandescent unicorns and magical beings. They glittered in the sun while their glimmering attire swirled in the breeze. During the Carnival, anyone can transform themselves, moving even into an otherworldly realm…

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What exotic rulers, from a distant palace filled with riches, shine like gold itself just beneath this marbled portico?

When researching this culture of mask from Venice’s history, one discovers that the majority of coverings translated into commonly known characters. This sometimes still holds true today…

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As you amble through Venice during the Carnival, inquire with the exquisitely attired and ask them who they are. Unique characters may reveal themselves (some with a wink to history and tradition). Only, don’t be offended if many remain mute. The right of anonymity belongs to the masked, and some don’t prefer to even share the vibration of their voices…

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Many don the brightest colors, covered in drifting sheer fabric and an eddy of soft feathers. Mysterious tropical birds, descending upon the city to outshine the average sea bird of the lagoon…

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And many couples (sometimes even groups) display themselves in carefully created, matching garments. I dare say, this pair would have had a hard time losing one another in the crowd! They remind me of the wind and water that are as much a part of Venice, as its majestic palazzi are…

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Wouldn’t it be fascinating to add up all of the hours spent creating such works of wearable art each season? The numbers would be telling of the passion a great many patrons put into their costumes. I thank them for keeping the magic and tradition of the Venetian Carnival, alive!

Here’s to the 2017 Carnevale di Venezia and to the city and people of Venice! Here’s also to remembering to add a bit of wonder and magic to each of your days, whether or not it be a festival day!

The Carnival of Venice

The Carnevale di Venezia 2017 is but 7 days away! Hundreds of visitors are preparing for the event, which this year falls between February 11-28. I’ve perused the calendar of this year’s events with wide-eyed wonder…what delights await all those who will have the privilege of attending…

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I took these photos when I attended the Venetian Carnival in 2005 with my costumer mother, Lita. We wore our gowns and ambled about the calle, along the waters of the lagoon and through St. Mark’s Square each day. There is nothing more enlivening than the energy in that square as crowds watch for the very best costumes on display (such as those worn by this impeccable couple above)…

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Cameras flash. People ohhh and ahhh. Laughter and chatter abound while the clamor from the lively crowd vibrates your sternum. It is very exciting. Music floods through St. Mark’s, amplified beats by day, live vocals at night…

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With pomp and mask, wig and powder, the fascinatingly antiquated carry themselves elegantly toward frivolity in every corner of the city. I swoon, I die…as I watch the parade go by…

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There is so much to entertain…cafe sittings, gondola rides, boat races and water parades, street entertainments, Festa delle Marie, The Flight of the Angel, mask and costume contests, masquerade balls and festive dinners. Along with the striking beauty of the city of Venice, its delicious fare, musical offerings and art exhibits, Carnevale could certainly overwhelm anyone with its sheer splendor…

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Though I will not be in attendance (deep sigh), I wish anyone attending this year the most enchanting time of their lives! As for me, I am anticipating the wonderful photos and videos that will soon be posting during this carnival season. They will ignite my dreaming for the next occasion when I too, will amble once more in costume through the labyrinth that is Venice!

My Pretty Venice

Absolutely charming! That’s what I think about My Pretty Venice: A Girl’s Guide to True Venice by Isabella Campagnol, Elisabeth Rainer and illustrated by Beatrice Campagnol. This lovely book put a smile on my face at the turn of every page…

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To begin with, I greatly esteem writer Isabella Campagnol who is the author of Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents which I previously reviewed here. With her being a fashion, textile, and decorative arts historian who writes on Venetian topics, who better to co-author a modern guide directed toward such themes, with rich history weaved in?

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What do I love about this book? First, Rainer and Campagnol have written an uncomplicated, selective guide to Venice, directed toward delights that ladies might enjoy. That hidden garden, that charming bookstore, a place to pamper your toes or find elegant trappings. However, it isn’t just dry information, it’s playful and delightfully accompanied by Beatrice Campagnol’s darling illustrations (also including illustrative, well placed photos by Lorenzano Di Renzo). A thoughtful guide for the travel-minded, adventurous spirit that is also endearing to the imagination!

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I really enjoyed the cameos and curiosities throughout the book as well, which retell interesting histories and share snippets of important ladies from Venice’s history!

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For you gals who love Venice (like me), or have a friend who does, My Pretty Venice is an absolute treat! Whether or not you’re heading to that magical city anytime soon, a flip through this book’s pages will sweep you away on your own little holiday!

Fur For Fleas

It’s fun to be wrong, at least when it comes to research. It allows you to be surprised, delighted and to learn new things!

Having always loved history, costuming and even participating in Renaissance re-enactment, there were ‘facts’ that I’ve never questioned. Learned people told me so, and I’d read so, so it must be true! Well that isn’t always the case. Take the flea fur…

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Oh heavens, look at those pearls! I digress. (If you love pearls as much as I do, don’t forget about Inspired by Venice‘s pearl earrings giveaway!)

Above is Isabella de’Medici (Italian), from 1558. At her side, you can see a special accessory. It is a zibellino or flea fur, adorned with gems.

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And here is Bianca Ponzoni Anguissola (Italian), 1557. She too has a flea fur, gilded, a head of gold, gems for eyes.

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And here, a flea fur at the collar of this woman (England, mid-1500’s).

You can find many, many portraits of nobles and their flea furs. Of course, people have been wearing furs for forever. But this particular way of wearing them (perhaps for looks, and displaying their riches) is noticed starting in the mid-late 1400’s.

I had always read, and been told, that the flea fur also had a practical purpose. It was to attract biting fleas from off of bodies. Even nobles crawled with fleas, money meant nothing when these creatures infested bedding, infrequently washed clothing, pets, etc. Nobles were said to place these furs on their person, so that the fleas would gather on the fur and then they could shake them, or beat them out.

Makes sense, only, it isn’t true. It was first surmised that this was the purpose for the pelts in the 1890’s, though no evidence has shown that the flea fur was anything but an accessory.

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Another noble lady holding her fur, Italy 1515. It’s fascinating how easily fiction becomes fact, this particular one developing in the late 19th century, and still a misdirected belief today. It reminds me to be careful to not take what people write or say, to be truth (even though in this case, I want to believe it!). Flea furs, held in the hand, hanging from the waist, laying over the shoulder, pinned to the breast, were just a vain display.

Oh well. I can still imagine this noble lady, frustrated with fleas, running outside to fling her flea fur about. Fiction perhaps, but amusing!

Pearl Earrings Giveaway Part III.

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First an excerpt from Veleno…a terrible tale, soon to come!

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Standing before her, he held out a large mollusk, far more generous in size than the ones they regularly ate. It was a fine catch, a basket of those would fetch an excellent price, especially on a feast day when the noble houses were entertaining guests and wanted to impress. Pulling a sharp knife from his belt, he sliced between the shells and carefully pried the animal open, discarding the top of the creature’s case to a table. Skilled, he swiftly cut beneath the meat and detached its membrane to make it easier to consume. He smiled once more and carefully handed over the plump, briny offering. Mafalda was embarrassed, the oyster was rather big and she felt hesitant to swallow it before Baldovino. Oysters were said to cause passions in the eaters; she was certain he knew that. As well he stood closely enough that she swore she could feel the heat radiating from his body, though it could have just been the kitchen blaze. He watched her expectantly, almost eagerly, standing tall enough to look over her. She wanted to move away, but only far enough so that she could spy on this man unnoticed; he was very desirable. He wiped the knife in his alternate hand upon a rag hanging at his hip and slipped it back into his belt.

Tentatively accepting the halved shell, the size of which completely engulfed her hand, she looked meekly up at Baldovino and then slowly brought the shell closer to her lips. Just as she was about to tilt the creature’s vessel up to slide the oyster into her mouth, he whispered for her to wait. She paused short and her eyes grew large. She began to blush. Why had he stopped her? She didn’t want to prolong this. Martinella would be back soon, or Tonia might catch an eyeful of the two and Mafalda felt that the man was standing too close, too familiarly. Carefully taking back the shell from her, he again pulled out his knife and scrapped gingerly at the flesh, quickly exposing a large and glistening white orb. It was a pearl, a very large pearl.

Today’s the day, the day for a pearl earrings giveaway! As you know, I’m nuts about pearls! Renaissance Venetians were too, such as the noble lady Mafalda in my soon to come Veleno…one terrible tale! You can check out Inspired by Venice‘s past pearl giveaways here and here.

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These delightful fresh water pearls are drop shaped, and white-yellow-peach depending on the light. Dainty and so lovely! These sweet earrings are by Brenda Duncan of The Black Pearl, purchased at the Bristol Renaissance Faire!

To enter the giveaway, get your imaginations brewing and write a sentence or two to describe what happened next after the pearl was discovered in Veleno‘s excerpt above. Write it in the comments! Does Mafalda gasp and greedily snatch the pearl right out of the oyster? Does Baldovino get called away, leaving the gift on the table for her to discretely take? Does she tell him she prefers diamonds? Does a kitchen maid accidentally spill something on them both, tripping as she walks by, and they all laugh? Be funny, or romantic (keep it classy), silly or serious…it’s for fun!

I’ll choose a winner at random from the entries, one week from today (on Monday, March 7th, 2016 at 9:00am Chicago time) and will announce the winner here! Please share news of the giveaway; the more fun entries there are, the merrier for all!

Here’s to smiles and laughs, good stories, and pearls of happiness in each and every day! Enjoy your adventure today!

The Costumer, The Artist, The Inspiration

My mother is a very talented costumer and artist. I’ve had the great fortune of watching her sew all of my years, and being able to wear some dozens of her creations: just for fun, in theatricals, and for historic reenactment. And though I am going to share a great many photos of her spectacular works on Inspired by Venice, I wanted you to first, meet the artist!

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This is Lita, my precious mother and best friend! Here she is wearing one of her own 18th century style day dresses in Venice during the Carnival.

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She wore a silk hair net covered in gold corded weave, with a gold mask and veil. The Venetian Carnevale tends to run at the end of January through the start of February, so it can be pretty chilly. Thankfully the sun shone beautifully that day, so a shawl and hand muff kept her warm enough while we took a stroll.

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We soaked in the sun with coffee in Piazza San Marco. The air was crisp and fresh, with a hint of the sea.

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On another sunny walk, she wore this piece, covered by a beautiful cape. If I’d had the sense, I would have gotten some closer photos so that one could really see some of the detail; the perfect pleated fabric over the small hip panniers, the feathered headpiece and veil, the lace at the elbows.

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Even now, I remember what it felt like to be able to walk about the city of Venice in costume (this excursion was in 2005). For me, it is the ultimate excitement to pretend for a moment that I’m visiting the 18th century and going about my business. For every occasion that I could actually wear a costume in public and ponder what it might have been like to live in another time, it is such a treat!

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Though we’d traditionally have worn a mask at all times, we sometimes went without. Our Carnival visit was also a tour of Venice, and we wanted to see everything (which a mask can sometimes hamper). I had a particular thing for veils at the time. But next time, I’m going to wear an enormous pompadour and a glitzy mask! We kept things very simple; Lita’s designs allowed us to walk about the city and enjoy the cafes without cumbersome costumes.

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We paced slowly over bridges and down lanes, peered in windows and walked by the lagoon. We laughed a lot and chattered like birds. It is rare to have the time of loved ones all to yourself for a whole week, it was lovely!

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We enjoyed each other’s company to the fullest in the midst of a mesmerizing Carnival and one beloved city. If it hadn’t been for this beautiful artist, who makes every part of the costumes I’m going to share with you (often even the jewelry), I would never have been inspired about history the way that I am, and I would never have written Venice.

Venice is dedicated to Lita, for being such a patient and generous person who taught me to be creative, be joyful, and to be inspired! Thank you!

Venice’s Fish Market

I don’t need any excuses to reminisce about Venice. However, we had a terrible snow storm yesterday that for me, led to one of those white knuckle driving experiences. There were cars stranded on the roads in what was a pure ice storm. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I was shaking from cold, or the stress of being out at a dangerous time.

This morning, safe and sound as the world outside recovers, I fancy that I live in Venice where I don’t ever have to drive in dangerous conditions, because there are no cars. Where would I go, car-free this morning? The pescheria!

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Living in the middle of the U.S., I crave fresh seafood. So whenever I travel close to the sea, all I want to eat is fish and shellfish.

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With its place on the sea, Venice draws in fresh seafood every day for its restaurants and citizens to pick from. The variety of creatures for sale are amazing, leading to endless dishes!

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Always clean beds of ice; assured that your seafood is kept cool and fresh.

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I’m attracted to food displays where colorful fare is laid by type in heaps. The bounty and organized clutter looks like art to me! I always have to pull out my camera, whether tables of cheese or piles of shrimp.

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Those long crustaceans to the right are canocce, a kind of shrimp. They look like they have big black eyes, but those spots are actually at the end of their tails…maybe to frighten predators with?

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These are seppie (cuttlefish), which produce black ink to ward off predators when they are disturbed. In Venice, you can order spaghetti nero di seppie, which is pasta mixed with the ink of the cuttlefish. The pasta turns black, and though I haven’t tried it, it is said to make pasta whisper fresh flavors of the sea. Cuttlefish dishes are abundant in Venice; the animal is often stewed in its ink and served with pasta or risotto.

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Seafood heaven, what more can I say? I’d learn how to cook it all if I lived near a market like this.

What I especially love about seafood is how simple it is. When it is fresh, it doesn’t need a lot of fancy cooking and sauces. A little roast or steam, a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of green garnish; let me sit to that table for a while!

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Ah well, I’ve enjoyed this momentary respite from the weather by thinking of Venice’s fish market. But alas, I must now bundle up and see how much ice remains on my car.

A chapter of Venice is dedicated to this fascinating place, where the boats pull up from the Grand Canal to deliver such bounty. If you want to take a stroll through the market, but can’t get to Venice just now, I hope you’ll enjoy my storytelling as you amble through the market in my book.

And as for those of you in Venice just now, please share something special about the market in the comments! We’d all like to know your favorite part about this spectacular, cultural, Venetian jewel!

A Beautiful Clutter

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The disguises, the puppets, the paper dolls staged in boxes, the mirrors…CIMG0883.JPG

There are lamps, wall hangings and sconces…smooth leather gloves, lace and pearls, soft embroidered pillows too…

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Ornate headpieces, gowns, feathered wings and crowns, sumptuous accessories and glorious scenes that move one’s imagination…CIMG0953.JPG

You are in this gondola heading toward a masked ball during Venice’s Carnevale. Which of the masks in that beautiful clutter are you wearing? In Venice, the choice is yours!

Only For A Pastry

Oh heavens, I don’t want to get moving today, but the day is planned out and I’ve got to shake a tail feather! I’d get moving much, much faster if I could relive this moment…

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Once upon a time, that latte in Venice had my name on it…I believe I drank two. Look at those tarts, one filled with custard, the others covered in thin slices of pear and apple with a sweet glaze…

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Oh yes, here is that second latte and that second plate of pastries. That creamy tart topped with tiny, fresh strawberries and that puff pastry dipped in semisweet chocolate…

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If I were just around the corner from this pastry shop in Venice once more, I’d already have my lipstick on and be out the door with a smile and a skip in my step! Wouldn’t you!?

Here’s wishing you a wonderful day!

Consider The Mask

For hundreds of years, the citizens of Venice wore masks. That statement sounds so simple, so natural, right? After all, it’s one of the images we associate with that city. It is intriguing, beautiful, mysterious…

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But after all of my research for my book Venice, and while currently reading Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic by James H. Johnson, I’ve realized how absolutely amazing, bizarre, intense and committed the notion of mask wearing in Venice really was.

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Consider this…it’s Halloween, you pick out a disguise and you put it on for one evening to join in the fun when you hand out candy to the trick-or-treaters. What happens after about an hour? “Ugh, I can’t see in this thing. Ugh…this mask is making me hot. Ugh…I feel claustrophobic.”

Now imagine that you are an 18th century Venetian at a time when the Carnival season lasted for months. Every single time you stepped out in public, whether to shop for your vegetables or visit a friend, you covered your face in a mask. Whether a simple disguise for walking around town, or an incredibly intricate mask for an evening of palazzo entertainments, you always had a different identity plastered to your face, and you were anyone but yourself.

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People placed masks on their babies. Yes, it’s true. Beggars on the bridges who were going without food, wore a mask. It’s true. Everyone was masked. And when you mingled with the crowds, whether on the street or at a masquerade, if you recognized the voice or mannerisms of someone you met, you never said so. To bring someone’s identity to light was considered rude.

I’m fascinated from a communication standpoint, of what that might have really been like. An entire city masked for months (and a great portion of the city masked all the rest of the year as well during the great heights of this trend). How did your personality change when you put that mask on, and depending on which mask you put on? What was it like trying to discern the real message behind someone’s words when all you had was a faux face and a voice, with no facial expressions to evaluate? How did you know whether anyone was ever being themselves? It’s dizzying to think about.

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These masks weren’t all blank disguises. There were a great many designs and characters to choose from. Wouldn’t the mask someone selected mean something? But what? Who the wearer thought they were? Or, was it how they wanted others to see them? Or, were they choosing identities that were the very opposite of their true selves? All of the above. Tricky, tricky.

Some masks didn’t allow for speech at all, removing even more of one’s personal identity. Consider the Moretta mask that was worn only by women. For the Moretta (also called the Muta because you’d be mute), a woman put it over her face and instead of securing it in place with a ribbon around her head, held it to with a button in her mouth. Can you imagine? A button in your mouth for hours on end, in silence? Talk about “Ugh…I’m getting claustrophobic.”

These thoughts hardly even scratch the surface when I actually try to consider the reality of this mask culture. And though I would merrily embrace an evening at the Venetian Carnival in mask, and though researching this Venetian trend fascinates me, for all its beauty and intrigue, I personally prefer the truth of a human face…

Private Lives In Renaissance Venice by Patricia Fortini Brown

If you are passionate about history like I am, then you may find yourself sometimes saying, “Yes, I see the dates and facts of what happened…but what was it really like to be there?”

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Since we can’t go back to experience history for ourselves, we can’t really know what it felt like, looked like, smelled like. The next best thing (besides historical reenactments, which I adore) is to review thoughtful compilation books, like Patricia Fortini Brown’s Private Lives in Renaissance Venice.

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Within the pages of this monumental work are a review of dozens and dozens of paintings from the 16th century, as well as photographs of objects in museums and private collections that belonged to that period. Along with these images, the author weaves together an amazing historic illustration of what items were used for, the meanings behind intricate décor, an understanding of the architecture, what dress styles signified, and how Venetians in the Renaissance interacted with their environment. This book offers so much unique insight (with a strong focal point on the noble elite) that you can for a moment, truly visualize what it might have been like to be in the room, in that gondola or at that celebration.

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What is also very special about this work, are the areas where Brown points out the differences between this particular culture and other cultures from that time. For instance, I was fascinated to read within her book, that it was the noble Venetian men who did the grocery shopping (as Venetian men prided themselves on the savvy merchant qualities of their sex in that city and felt they knew best how to identify value in goods). And further, at receptions within a noble home that included visitors, the luxury you saw with your eyes was more important than what luxuries were on the menu. This meant, looking at the finery and decoration around the room took precedence over a table filled with food (unlike most every other city in Europe where banqueting meant gross overeating). I love you Venice, but I’m not sure I’m on your side with this one. This gal needs to eat!

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If you have an interest in Venice’s history, and-or of the Renaissance, I highly recommend adding this exemplary and artful book to your collection. This work, paired with a little imagination, and you’ll feel transported in time!

Excerpt From Veleno…Coming soon!

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“This is no plague m’lady. I’ve seen that devil run through a house.” The old woman paused and made the sign of the cross over herself. “Your youngest has been poisoned. Do you see her eyes, as large and black as ripe grapes.” Martinella scrunched her brows together until they looked like one line. “The lady Noemi found an assassin berry just before m’lord left for Treviso, in the house. I threw it in the lagoon. I imagine more found their way through the door. We best put her to bed madam, and see if she wakes in the morning.”

Mirella motioned to the second man, who immediately swooped in and picked up the little mite as if she were a piece of parchment. Paola clasped her arms around his thick neck and laid her head on his brawny shoulder. So this is what it feels like to sway in the branches of an oak, she thought. She’d normally have been mortified to be in the arms of a strange man, the arms of any man, but this was comforting. As the poison like a dagger slashed into her stomach, she cried out into the ruffled collar of his linen shirt. She’d never felt a pain like that before. The man held her more tightly as he carried her down the hall. Too agonized to push off the onset of another faint, the last thing she remembered was the smell of leather and wood smoke from off of the stranger’s doublet.

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VELENO…Coming Soon!

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In 1576, the Black Death knocked on every door in Venice, Italy and took with it, the lives of fifty thousand…just less than the entire population of Venice today.

But for those who lived in the House of Orso, the plague wasn’t the only predator. Veleno…a terrible tale, even for those who aren’t afraid of the dark…

You Decide Your Own Fate In Venice!

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The release of Venice is fast approaching! Venice is a decide-as-you-go historical fiction and travel novel. As the reader, you are the main character in the book and are offered choices at the end of each chapter about what you’d like to see and do in Venice, Italy during the Carnival! The book includes diverging stories and alternate endings. And though written in a woman’s voice, anyone who is interested in Venice is sure to enjoy the tour!

What inspired me to write a novel in this style? As a kid in the ‘80s, I read quite a few books from the Choose Your Own Adventure series produced by Bantam Books. This series allowed you to be quite the globetrotter! And, how awesome was it to be the main character? Reading them, I felt nervous making choices at the end of each chapter and loved to go back and see what would have happened if I had decided on a different path. I wanted to write a story like that!

I had forgotten those adventures for a time, but one day after setting out to brainstorm a novel that took place in Venice (a beloved destination), I quickly realized a single linear story wasn’t the right style to explore the city on paper, to the depth that I wanted to. How could my main character see everything I wanted her to see in Venice, she was just one lady…or was she?

I hope this style of divergent stories will inspire readers to remember how great their opportunities are right now! So many wonderful things to learn, to see, to do!

Venice was meant to peak interest in a particular place, but I hope that it also encourages readers to get curious about the history and present day situations right where you are. If you find yourself asking how that old building on Main St. got there, dig for the answers; the stories behind it may surprise, delight…or even baffle! Or if you prefer current events to history, everyday is filled with opportunities to dig deeper into the causes and communities that you care about. Whatever fascinates you; go check it out!

Lastly, my hope is that Venice excites travel! For all of those wonderful places in the world that you want to see, I hope that you get there. In the meantime, enjoy reading about them!

Stay tuned for news about Venice, as well as photos, stories and forgotten histories about the city!