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A Day in 18th-century Venice

The life of a Venetian noblewoman in the time of Casanova

Hot Chocolate Drinking in Venice, by Longhi

Their nerves unstrung by disease and the consequence of early debaucheries, allow no natural flow of lively spirits...They pass their lives in one perpetual doze.William Beckford

It is already the sixth hour when Cecilia Contarini wakes to a new day in the family palazzo on the Grand Canal; her eyelids have scarcely fluttered when her cavalier servente, Rodrigo Sagredo, is at her side. ‘Good morning, bellissima,’ he murmurs, even though Cecilia’s face is covered with strips of milk-soaked veal.

As Cecilia steps into a steaming bath, Rodrigo entertains her with a recital of the morning’s gossip, much of it concerning her own husband. Giancarlo is a senator, but one whose slumming in the sestiere’s malvasie has more than once attracted the attention of the Ten and their spies.

None of this bothers Cecilia as much as the news that Giancarlo’s older brother was angrily threatening to cut back their weekly allowance again.

While Cecilia lingers over her morning chocolate, flicking through the engraved visiting cards left by friends (there’s one she nonchalantly slips into the pocket of her dressing gown), the tutor announces the children, who file in for morning dress inspection. Cecilia gives each tot a big hug and kiss before the tutor shuffles them out again.

Next, it’s time for the main business of the morning: hairdressing. Seeing that his charge is in good hands for the next six hours, Rodrigo ducks out to tend to some pressing business of his own at the convent of San Zaccaria, where his sister, a nun, can always get him a loan.

‘And which patch will La Signora choose today?’ asks the hairdresser, primping the last blonde curl in place. Cecilia reflects for a moment, and remembers the note.

‘Assassina,’ she whispers. The hairdresser raises an eyebrow, and they both laugh.

It’s November, 1770, in the reign of Doge Alvise Mocenigo IV. Although it’s the sixth hour, Cecilia, like most patricians, is not up early. Like every Venetian lady, noble or bourgeois, Cecilia has a cavalier servente, a kind of auxiliary husband who belonged to the same social class as she; more extravagant women had several. Rodrigo’s role was to squire Cecilia about town, and to provide for her every little need. No husband would be caught dead with his own wife. Like most cicisbei Rodrigo was even written into Cecilia’s marriage contract.

On the surface at least, all was accepted and respectable. After all, there was no such a thing as a love marriage in Venice. In most patrician families, one brother would be chosen to marry and produce heirs. The others, who remained in the family palazzo, pursued careers in politics, the priesthood, or, very rarely now in the 1700s, in the military. Each brother would be given an allowance, augmented if he were elected to an important office; Venetian officials were expected to pay their own expenses.

Besides these burdens, most noble families would rustle up a considerable dowry to marry off their eldest daughter, in the interests of a political alliance; extra daughters were usually sent off to convents. These unwilling nuns were a major source of Venetian scandal, but their convents played banker to noble families, giving them loans that were rarely repaid. When Napoleon suppressed the convents half the nobles were forced into bankruptcy.

The Council of Ten’s spies shadowing Cecilia’s wayward husband could safely be ignored. The Ten’s power had so eroded at the end of the Republic that they did little more than issue stern warnings to be studiously read and studiously ignored. Giancarlo caused concern because the malvasie (named after malmsey, the Greek wine they peddled) were used as common brothels and no place for a patrician. But they were popular nonetheless: some 20 streets are still called Calle di Malvasia.

In the l8th century Venetian women began a sexual revolution that makes the 1960s look prudish. Every traveller remarked on the beauty of the women – and the fact that it was hard to tell a noble lady from a prostitute. Every palace had several discreet entrances, and every gondolier, if he wanted to keep his job, was committed to complete secrecy.

Few noble ladies took their affairs very seriously. If Venetian women cut loose, it was partly as a reaction to the lives of their foremothers. Ever since the founding of the city, its women had been treated like Byzantine chattels, forced to live such reclusive lives that all we know about them is that they spent half their time on their altane or rooftop terraces bleaching their hair.

Cecilia, too, was a Venetian blonde, but with the aid of the hairdresser’s dyes that red-gold colour was much easier to obtain. A lot of women had opted for wigs (in 1797 there were 850 wigmakers in Venice) but Cecilia was vain about her thick hair, which could hold so many fashionable fruits and flowers.

The average noble woman spent hours on her appearance every morning. Although the bulk of the hairdresser’s work was on the tower of hair, he was also responsible for make-up on the face and breasts. This was never extreme in Venice and the ideal was to look as natural as possible, except for the artificial moles, or patches. The wearer used these as a code: a mole placed in a dimple meant she was feeling coquettish, if placed on the nose she was feeling rather forward. The assassina, by the corner of the mouth, was the most daring of all.

Her toilette completed, Cecilia sends the hairdresser off with a note for her admirer, then dresses for church. It is Saturday and the orphan girls at La Pietà are performing a new mass.

Rodrigo appears with Cecilia’s prayer book to escort her, and the family gondola is waiting. But they are late, and some English milords, in town for Carnival, have taken Cecilia’s favourite seat. A comical row breaks out, silenced only when the heavenly music begins.

Cecilia and Rodrigo leave church and call at a friend’s house to don the traditional Carnival disguise: white beaked masks, or bautte, tricorne hats and concealing, long cloaks, or 'tabarri'.

By the time they reach the Piazza, it is heaving with other masqueraders, dancing bears, soothsayers, dentists, and Irish weight-lifters. The cafés are overflowing. Seeing her opportunity, Cecilia quickly sets a time for Rodrigo to meet her for the theatre, then loses him in the crowd to escape down a back alley off the Mercerie. On her way, she passes Giancarlo and his friends, masked as Tartars and Red Indians and singing racy songs to all passers-by. Cecilia manages to slip past, but even if Giancarlo had somehow recognized his wife, they would have pretended not to know each other.

In the aftermath of the Great Interdict, the Church had less of a role to play in Venice than anywhere in Italy. The Senate had always maintained that its citizens were Venetians first and Christians second. By the 18th century, Mass for many Venetians was just another social occasion. Throughout the service they behaved appallingly, chatting, flirting and quarrelling. Prostitutes hung about in the side chapels. The priest only stood a chance of being heard if he had a good voice; although Rome disapproved, many priests were castrati, because the lagoon folk couldn’t resist a soprano.

Indeed the Venetians, of every walk of life, had an ‘unbelievable infatuation’ for music. Visitors wrote that there was simply no escape from singing; and the narrow streets and canals offer excellent acoustics. Nearly everyone played an instrument or sang; the gondoliers were famous for singing passages from Tasso across the night lagoon. Orphan girls at La Pietà, Ospedaletto and the Incurabili were formed into orchestras of renown (Vivaldi wrote most of his compositions for them).

Carnival in Venice was more than the traditional ten-day celebration before Lent: it meant the licence to go about masked in total anonymity. In the 18th century the wearing of masks became legal for six months of the year to bring in more tourists and to let impoverished patricians go about the streets without shame. Carnival in Venice also meant gambling and the freedom to commit any indiscretion. It was extremely bad form ever to show any sign of recognizing a masked person: everyone from doge to scullery maid was simply addressed as Sior Maschera, or 'Mr Mask'.

It is getting dark as Cecilia meets Claudio, her gondolier, at the back entrance of her lover’s casino. Claudio is such a model of discretion that he, too, wears a costume over the telltale colours of the family livery, to the confusion of the snoops and informers hanging out the windows.

Tonight is the gala opening at the Teatro San Samuele, where Cecilia has a box. Although the Inquisitors insist that women wear the bautta and tabarro to the theatre, no one takes heed. Cecilia dons a glittering satin gown; she drips jewels, and her hair is laced with pearls. Rodrigo arrives, looking just as elegant in white knee-breeches and stockings, a pink and green embroidered waistcoat, a coat covered with stitches of gold and a tricorn hat over his wig.

As usual, Cecilia and Rodrigo gossip with their neighbours through the entire performance, pausing only when a brawl breaks out in the pit below, as the customers, dressed in their own costumes, try to steal the show. The villain of the play is so evil that the audience pelts him with stewed pears. Cecilia and the other ladies amuse themselves by dropping their ices and candle ends on the heads of the most obnoxious people below.

At the end, one of the actresses sings a moving farewell that silences the audience and causes a veritable paroxysm of rapturous howls at the end. Cecilia begins to swoon from emotion, but Rodrigo, never at a loss, is ready with a spoonful of triaca, or treacle, a panacea made from a recipe of 60 ingredients that dates back to the time of Nero. As always it works a treat, and the bloom returns to her cheeks.

As midnight approaches, Venice is coming alive; music and laughter drift down the Grand Canal, from the streets, from the palaces. Cecilia lets Rodrigo take his fair share of liberties in the gondola, behind the blinds of the cabin, or felze; at supper with friends at their casino he feeds her the best titbits by hand. Everyone chatters and laughs at the same time and they drink too much, all in preparation for the principal excitement of the evening at the Ridotto.

At the Ridotto, the laughter stops, as Cecilia and Rodrigo manage to squeeze into the silent throng gathered around the biribissi table – the ancestor of roulette. Cecilia feels lucky and wins, once, twice, before losing once, twice, a dozen times. Rodrigo gently touches her elbow; Giancarlo is standing behind her, stoically watching. Neither he nor Rodrigo can cover her losses. ‘Perhaps we could sell that old Bellini Madonna in the family chapel?’ she whispers.

Giancarlo smiles sadly, and kisses her hand for response: his own losses make hers look like child’s play. They are close to ruin, but he’s too much of a gentleman to tell her, especially when she looks so beautiful. Cecilia pleads a headache and when Rodrigo offers to escort her home, she convinces him he should stay at the Ridotto, where their luck would be sure to change.

Once in her gondola, however, she gives Claudio an address far from home, and toujours gaie, she ends up at dawn, forgetting all discretion on the arm of the French ambassador, as they wander among the morning-after crowd at the Rialto vegetable markets.

Perhaps Fellini is the only one who could do justice to Venetian theatre in the 18th century. It was the rage: for a population of 130,000 there were six active theatres, and this was before the construction of La Fenice. Goldoni, who put a mirror to the Venetians and their foibles, was a great success. But the audience, who enthusiastically identified with the actors, always demanded novelty, celebrity actors or singers and scantily clad ballerinas.

Gambling was the national vice. The patricians, no longer able to gamble their fortunes at sea, squandered them every night during Carnival at the state-run casino, or Ridotto. So many patricians met bankruptcy there that the government closed it in 1774. But the Venetians had gambling in their blood: immediately the casini (informal flats or love nests, where the patricians could relax, as they were unable to do in their museum-palaces) brought out card tables to take the Ridotto’s place, and hence our English word, ‘casino’.

When the famous Giacomo Casanova was young, he would gladly have joined Cecilia in the dawn pageant of the debauched and ravished at the Rialto’s Erberia. But when he was old and a secret agent for the Ten, he sent in scandalized reports. Still, he failed to make much impact. And when the Ten sacked him, he left Venice for good, with a broken heart.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art