18th-century Venice was celebrated for its worldly pleasures, including its masquerade, held at Carnival time. It was one of several Italian cities that were essential stops on the ‘Grand Tour’, undertaken by young aristocrats as an educational rite of passage. The country was made up of a network of city states, each with its own attractions. Florence, Rome and Naples were magnets for both tourists and artists, who were drawn by the architecture, ancient ruins, landscape, music, art, and social life.
In 1776 the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson remarked that ‘A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see.’
The watery location of Venice fascinated visitors, who came principally for the cultural and social pleasures, such as opera, theatre and gambling, all encompassed by the annual celebrations of Carnival. By the mid-18th century, the city was in economic and political decline, but it continued to be an extremely popular destination.
The commedia dell’arte was an improvised form of theatre featuring a repertoire of stock characters. It was performed in the open air and also at court. Developed in Italy around 1550, the commedia dell’arte became enormously popular in the 18th century, when the personalities, masks, props and colourful costumes of its clowns, villains and lovers were familiar across Europe. Artists and manufacturers responded to its popularity, creating works of art inspired by the characters, especially in porcelain.
The mirrored cabinet is decorated in the Neoclassical style that dominated European design in the late 18th century. The carved and gilded panelling incorporates motifs from ancient art, such as vases, medallions and friezes. Some of these motifs are echoed in the rich marquetry floor. Classical trophies above the mirrors feature musical, artistic and astronomical instruments, as well as military equipment.
This historic interior is supported by Dr Genevieve Davies.
Carnival was a period of revelry that enlivened Venice each year before the religious season of Lent. It offered Venetians and visitors a range of entertainments, from acrobatics and performances in the city’s streets and piazzas, to balls, operas and gambling in private apartments. During Carnival, many people wore masks. Masquerading created an atmosphere of secrecy, performance and deception.
The Masquerade film offers an interactive, fictional view of the Venetian masquerade. With Harlequin at your side, you can join the main characters as they enjoy the revelries of Carnival: first at a ball, then in a gambling hall known as the ridotto, and finally at a commedia dell’arte performance in a Venetian piazza.
The Masquerade was made by Clay Interactive in collaboration with community groups and Slung Low theatre company.
There is also a display about the collector John Jones in Room 2A