Notes on the background to Croce’s Carnevale Veneziano

by DonnaMae J Gustafson

Carnevale Veneziano, released by Chandos Records in February 2001, includes two sets of masquerades by the Venetian composer Giovanni Croce. A native of Chioggia, a small fishing port to the south, Croce had been appointed a choir boy at St Mark’s church in Venice by the age of eight. Before he was thirty he had become a member of the Dominican Order, a priest at a nearby parish church, and one of the senior singers at St Mark’s.

Croce’s Mascarate piacevoli et ridicolose per il carnevale (Delightful, Comic Masquerades for Carnival, 1590) and Triaca musicale (A Musical Cure-All, 1595) were sung in costumes and masks for theatrical or private entertainments during the carnival season. The masquerades present a colorful parade of the usual sixteenth-century comic characters: beggars, foreigners, courtesans, tradesmen, nuns, dottering old men, and stock figures from the tradition of popular street theatre.

Translation of the masquerade texts, written by anonymous poets, has revealed puns, double meanings, and biting satire that illuminate the original social function of these pieces. Many of Croce’s characters can now be understood as parodies of specific Venetian aristocratic groups, and clues in the texts strongly suggest the original performance venues. The key to the conception of Croce’s Delightful, Comic Masquerades is the final piece, Masquerade of the Friulians. In the parish of St. Antonino in the Castello section of Venice stands the church known today as San Giovanni dei cavalieri di Malta (St John of the Knights of Malta). Immigrants from the Friuli region of Italy had settled in the neighbourhood in the fifteenth century and given their name, ‘Friulian,’ to several streets and city squares. The nineteenth-century historian Giuseppe Tassini asserts that the church and its adjoining monastery and priory were nicknamed St John of the Friulians because of being next to a street of that name (1). The setting for Croce’s Masquerade of the Friulians is identified in its fourteenth line as the Campo delle gatte (Square of the Papal Legates), and, at the time these masquerades were composed, the official residence for these ambassadors of the pope was the Venetian Grand Priory of the Knights of St John. ‘Campo delle gatte’ was the sixteenth-century nickname for the city square that still adjoins the knights’ garden. This masquerade set was for the entertainment of the Knights of Malta, who are depicted banquetting and partying in the final masquerade. Furthermore, the nobleman Leonardo Sanudo, to whom the first edition of Delightful, Comic Masquerades is dedicated, lived in the neighborhood of the church and priory. Sanudo was a collector of music manuscripts and prints, and his relationship to Croce and the Knights of St John remains a matter for further investigation.

Clues to the original venue of A Musical Cure-All are less obvious. In addressing the audience, Dr Graziano mentions being in Paradise’ (Dr Graziano’s Masquerade, lines 3, 10), which was a nickname for a neighbourhood in which many wealthy Venetian families lived. Prior to being elected to the dogeship of Venice, Marino Grimani and his wife Morosina Morosini-Grimani lived in this neighbourhood on the Grand Canal, and gave their patronage to Croce. Graziano’s praise of the ‘beautiful Paradise’ suggests a banquet or festive occasion at the Grimani palace.

The ‘myth of Venice’ was a public relations effort on a grand scale, encouraged by the Venetian aristocracy. Well-known in the sixteenth century, this myth praised the unique beauty and geography of the city and the longevity of her republican government. Petrarch’s famous tribute to Venice was an earlier expression of this tradition: “Venice – city rich in gold but richer in renown, mighty in works but mightier in virtue, founded on solid marble but established on the more solid foundations of civic concord, surrounded by the salty waves but secure through her saltier councils.” (2) The myth of Venice became an embodiment of civic pride that permeated all levels of aristocratic life. Emphasis was on the individual liberty and freedom that was said to prevail in Venice, and on the peacefulness and harmony said to exceed that enjoyed in any other Italian state. The necessity of upholding this harmonious view of Venice resulted in a self-imposed aristocratic lifestyle in which social behavior, marriage, sexuality, dress, and political advancement were subject to the most rigid control. Perpetuation of the myth depended upon the strictest observance of aristocratic propriety and decorum, and on each Venetian fulfilling his or her social role in a cooperative and uncomplaining way.

Given this social and political atmosphere, most of Croce’s masquerades can be understood as depicting outlandishly indecorous behavior in which only low-life types would engage. Comic entertainments such as these could serve to remind the noble audience of existing social restrictions, and could, in the broadest sense, promote and enforce the myth of Venice. The Beggar Women’s Masquerade is a colorful example. Beggar women lament the poverty of their clothing and food, asking only for schiavine, the coarse wool robes worn by religious pilgrims. Ironically, Schiavine is also a street name in the San Luca parish of Venice where many wealthy palaces, including that of the Grimani family, were concentrated. No doubt written by a male poet, this masquerade is a comic depiction of noble women complaining about Venetian sumptuary laws which were aimed at the reduction of excessive spending and conspicuous display by noble families. While these laws applied to everyone, their emphasis was on the clothing and jewelry of the noble married woman. The laws dealt very specifically with types and colors of fabric, allowable yardage of cloth in a dress, sleeve width, embellishment with gold and silver embroidery, and the number of pearls or diamonds that could be worn on a single occasion. Spies were employed by the Venetian government to seek out offenders and their tailors, who were heavily fined. Since the specific regulations changed yearly with the fashion trends, their purpose seems to have been suppression of individuality and preservation of a kind of uniformity in the dress of the noble woman.

Venice was ruled by the most senior male members of its noble families, and age was therefore a defining issue in the lives of aristocratic men. The doge of Venice and the members of powerful givernmental councils were elected at an advanced age, having earned these influential political positions through longevity, years of service, and gradual accumulation of power. Restraint, respectability, and decorum in the public sphere were necessary qualities for political success. Old men in their dotage were therefore easy prey for satire in carnival entertainments, and the beloved figures of Pantalone and Dr Graziano were well-known stock characters. In the Masquerade of the Magnifici’s Echo, a group of Pantalone characters has a comic exchange with an echo whom they mistake for a real person; stuttering over their words, they trade increasingly coarse insults with the echo. Their stuttering is contrived to fall on words of special significance such as ‘codpieces’, a prominent feature of their costumes. The comic implication is that the old men cannot control their jiggling codpieces. The Little Boys’ Song pokes fun at another aspect of old men’s lives — the visit to the prostitute. The singers, masquerading as old men, pretend to be children going to school. They sing a very unchildlike song on the way to class, and gleefully look forward to the spanking they will receive if they come late.

The figure of the nun who has temporarily escaped from her convent into the public sphere was a commonplace of Venetian carnival entertainment. Because of Venetian family, social, and economic structure, the convent played a large role in aristocratic life. Most noble Venetian families operated lucrative businesses and had large numbers of children. Only one son from each noble family was allowed to marry, while the others remained at home to avoid spreading the family wealth too thinly. This resulted in a substantial lack of available husbands for noble daughters, and the competition for them raised the price of a bride’s dowry beyond the means of many families. Since tradition dictated that the Venetian noble woman be placed in an arranged marriage or a convent by the age of fourteen, more than half of them lived out their adult lives in convents. It was less expensive for their male relatives to maintain them there for life than to successfully negotiate for a husband of comparable social status. Croce’s Masquerade of the Women of Burano depicts noble nuns hawking the lace wares made in their convent. Fine lace was highly desired by aristocrats as trimming for luxurious clothing, and Morosina Morosini-Grimani was among the patrons of the Burano lace-makers.

In the carnival tradition, nuns on the loose are satirized as unable to control their sexual appetities. Croce’s nuns sing a song about a handsome fisherman, and plead with him to “come this way to stow your catch” (lines 11-12). The nuns, who operate an orphanage at their island convent, mention that ‘Uncle Albano’ is waiting to take them home in a little boat (lines 19-22). St Albano is a legendary saint whose martyred body was said to have miraculously arrived upon the shore of Burano from the east, floating on the sea in a stone coffer. This popular legend was an acknowledged joke. In this masquerade the nuns compare the unavailability of sexual activity to having been martyred, and comically lament the transportation of their imprisoned and ‘dead’ bodies over the sea to Burano.

For the Venetians, all outsiders were foreigners, including Italians from other cities. In carnival entertainments, travesties of foreigners served the chauvinistic myth of Venice by demonstrating that non-Venetians lacked the refinement, rigid standards of social decorum, and power so valued in the local nobility. In Croce’s Auction of the Slave Girl, foreigners with comically thick accents bid for a lovely blond woman but are outbid by a Venetian noble. Despite their obvious wealth, the foreigners present no threat. A German appears in the Masquerade of the Tongues, which evokes a scene of popular street entertainment. Wealthy German merchants were an important presence in sixteenth-century Venetian commercial ventures and in patronage of the arts. Their hotel and warehouse, the lavishly decorated Fondaco dei Tedeschi, was often the site of musical and theatrical entertainments. The Fugger family of Augsburg, reputed to be the wealthiest family in the world, maintained permanent representatives there. Despite this refined and prosperous image, Venetian carnival entertainments characterized Germans as lascivious, drunken, and uncouth. In the Masquerade of the Tongues the German brutalizes the Italian language and grunts his part in the musical refrain. He also apparently cannot sing well, since he finishes his part early and has to sustain his final note until the other singers complete the piece. As a final comic touch, the German announces that he is a bon compagnon (good fellow), which can be understood as a pun on the name of Pope Gregory XIII (Ugo Boncompagni) for the amusement of the Knights of St John and the papal legates in the original audience (line 5). Pope Gregory was from Bologna, and only in Venice would it have been comic to characterize him as a foreigner.

The masquerade sets of Giovanni Croce have long been an enigma to musicologists. Important questions have been raised about their original purpose, performance venue, and performance. The older scholarly opinion held that these masquerades were presented to an aristocratic Venetian audience as chamber works without costumes, props, or staging (3). Evidence has come to light to refute this opinion. Both sets contain theatrical elements: greetings and farewells to an audience, musical opportunities for exits and entrances, formal design, and rich opportunities for dancing, clowning, and gags. While the prevailing Venetian courtly musical style is Croce’s point of departure, there are deliberately-planned references to the quodlibet, villotta, moresca, popular tune, and echo effect. The hedonistic Venetian nobility demanded musical variety in their entertainments, and in Delightful, Comic Masquerades and A Musical Cure-All, the poet and composer supplied this desirable feature. It now seems clear that Croce’s masquerades were the musical centerpieces for larger entertainments such as banquets or plays.

A complete study and critical edition of Delightful, Comic Masquerades is available in: Gustafson, DonnaMae J. Giovanni Croce’s Mascarate piacevoli et ridicolose per il carnevale: A Contextual Study and Critical Edition. Ph.D. diss, University of Minnesota, 1992.

(1) Giuseppe Tassini, Curiosita veneziane: Ovvero origini delle denominazioni stradali, 1886, ed. Lino Moretti (Venice: Filippi, 1964): 307.

(2) Petrarch, Epistolae seniles, IV: 3, 1364; cited in Iain Fenlon, “Venice: Theatre of the World,” chap. in The Renaissance: From the 1470s to the end of the 16th century (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice hall, 1989): 102-32. On the myth of Venice see Ellen Rosand, “Music in the Myth of Venice,” Renaissance Quarterly 30 (1977): 511-15; and Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991): 126-43.

(3) Alfred Einstein, The Italian Madrigal, trans. Alexander H. Krappe, Roger H. Sessions and Oliver Strunk (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), 2: 800.


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