Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Masks of Carnival...

Parade floats.  Beads.  Revelry.  All elements of the Fat Tuesday festivities known as Mardi Gras.  Throw in scantily clad women in feather and rhinestone covered costumes, and the energetic 2/4 steps of the rhythmic Samba, and you have the Brazilian Carnival celebration.  Last, and definitely not least, is the February celebration I look the most forward to...

Venice's Carnival.  One of the high items on my 'Bucket List' is to witness Carnival in person.  Venice is such a beautiful, and romantic place.  The canals twisting their way through the buildings, the gondoliers "voga alla veneziana" (rowing venetian style), the long oar turning rhythmically on its "forcola" (oar rest).

There is something so Gothic about Carnival.  So romantic.  The feature of the celebration I most look forward to seeing are images of the revelers in their ornate masks.  The Venetian mask has been around for centuries, and is most associated with the protection of the wearers identity.  The early masks were constructed of paper-mache, and were adorned with a number of things, including feathers, gems, and fabric.

Unlike some other European nations of antiquity, all citizens of Venice enjoyed a high standard of living. Venice capitalized on its position and gains, long before other countries realized the value of the market economy.  Venice enjoyed an unequaled level of wealth, and their unique culture was born.  Of great importance was the need to conceal ones' identity in daily life, to perform daily activities.  Venice is relatively small.  Citizens had places and people to visit, and they didn't always want others to know what their dealings were.

The masks made everyone "equal".  When masked, a servant could be mistaken for a nobleman, and vice-versa.  Citizens could be questioned by law enforcers or spies without any fear of their true identity being disclosed, or any retribution.  Masks maintained the morale of the one had a 'face', but everyone had a voice.

Of course, there were those that took advantage of the situation.  Sexual promiscuity was accepted, and became very commonplace.  Gambling was going on everywhere (convents included), at every hour of the day and night. Clothing became more revealing.  Members of the clergy also wore masks, and ornate clothing, engaging in the same activities as everyone else.  Rome didn't interfere as the Republic continued to send them generous donations.

Venice plummeted into a pit of moral decay.  In time, the daily wearing of masks was banned, and only allowed during a few months of the year.  In the last year of the Republic, the three month period was designated, starting on December 26th.

The 'masquerade' went through periods of being outlawed by the Catholic Church, after the 1100's.  The policy they set did eventually lead them to full acceptance when they declared that the period of the year starting on December 26th, and ending on Shrove Tuesday was free for wearing full, decadent Venetian masks/attire.

The period became what is now known as the pre-Lent celebration, Carnival. Oddly enough, Carnival is said to mean "remove meat".  Carnival would drop off in popularity as cultural production faltered in Venice  during the Enlightenment (Age of Reason) in the 18th century.  After a long absence, it was brought back in 1979.  The Italian government made the decision to bring history and culture back to Venice, Carnival being their plans' centerpiece.

I have always wanted to own a Venetian mask.  They are so exquisite.  The central theme of the Carnival celebration, there are seven basic mask designs:

"Bauta" (Larva, Casanova) ~ A Very famous design, it is the main mask worn during the festivities. Historically, it was used to hide a wearer's identity, so they could interact more freely with others outside of everyday convention.  It was used for personal (romantic) purposes, and criminal purposes.  The name/term "Bauta" doesn't have a definite interpretation.  It might come from the German word "behten" (to protect).  Or the Italian term for a monster "Bau" or "Babau", used to frighten children.

Kings and Princes used it as a disguise so they could walk among the citizens unnoticed.  In the 18th century, it became a society mask and design regulated by the government.  Certain individuals were obligated to wear a Bauta for political voting events where anonymity was required.

The original Bauta disguise was made up of a white face shaped mask, a 3 cornered (tricorne) hat, a black veil of silk, and a black cloak (taborro) or mantle.  The outfit was worn by both women and men.

"Dama" (Valeri, Salome, Regina, Olga, Fantasia) ~ Comes in many variations and corresponds to the ladies of the Cinquecento (period of Titian).  They covered themselves in expensive and elaborate costumes, wigs, and jewelry. These days, it is the most popular design at Carnival.

"Gatto" ~ It is easy to see that the name of the mask is Italian for 'cat'. Cats were scarce in Venice, and became a traditional and popular mask.

"Jester"/male - "Jolly"/female ~ Clown associated with the Middle Ages. Starting in Italy, the Jester would move through all of Europe.  In the Middle Ages, the Jester was seen as the symbolic twin of the King.  Also known as 'fools', they were thought to be either gifted or cursed, and thought of as touched by God with a childlike madness. Jesters wore brightly colored clothing.  Their hat was typically a floppy three pointed design with a jingle bell at the tip of each point.  Other things distinct about the Jester were his mock sceptre (known as a "bauble" or "marotte"), and his laughter.

"Moretta"Servetta Muta (dumb maid-servant), it was an oval shaped mask made of black velvet.  It covered all but the outer edges of the face, and was held in place by a small bit held between the wearers' teeth.  usually worn by women visiting convents.  Invented in France, it quickly gained popularity in Venice as it brought out the woman's features.

"Volto" ~ Meaning 'face' in Italian, the Volto was also known as the Citizen mask, historically worn by the Common People.

(Dottore Peste)
"Dottore Peste" ( Medico della Peste)~ This one is a more modern mask, with a unique history.  A disguise used by Plague Doctors, it was worn when visiting those stricken with the plague.  It's not so much a mask as a disguise.  The outfit consisted of a hat that showed the wearer to be a doctor, a mask to protect the face (it had crystal eyes to protect the wearers' eyes, and a beak that was stuffed with herbs and spices to purify the air breathed by the doctor), a wooden stick to push plague victims that came to close away, leather gloves, a gown sealed with wax on the inside, and high boots.

Looking at these beautiful masks put me in mind of a book series by my favorite author, Tanith Lee.  "The Secret Books of Venus" are set in 18th Century Venice.  The following is an excerpt from one of my earlier posts about Tanith.  If you would like to read the full post, click here.

The Secret Books of Venus

  • Faces Under Water
  • Saint Fire
  • A Bed of Earth
  • Venus Preserved
These are just brilliant.  Dark, romantic, and with a peppering of violence that fits into the story line in such a way that it isn't completely repugnant.  It is necessary to the flow of the story.  I am usually quite disappointed with series because a wonderful opener can be deflated with a sub-par follow-up novel. This was to be the second series of Tanith's that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring.

The series takes place in 18th century Venice.  Book one opens with the hedonistic atmosphere of Carnival.  The festive turns deadly when Furian Furiano finds a mask of Apollo floating in the murky waters of the canals.  The mask hides a sinister art...that of the mask maker.

Furian becomes trapped in a bizarre web of love and evil, causing him to stumble on a macabre society of murderers.  A beautiful and elusive woman, Eurydiche, holds the key to the murders.  As she leads Furian into a labyrinth of ancient alchemy and black magic, he begins to realize that there are secrets in his own past linking him to her.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New Moon In Pisces...February 21, 2012...

The New Moon for this month falls on February 21, at approximately 5:15 PM/EST.  It is a somewhat busy time for Pisces, as the Sun, Moon, Neptune, Chiron, and Mercury, are all in the sign of the fish.  This is going to create a perfect platform for focusing on tolerance and acceptance, as well as forgiveness.  Take this time to release the negative weight of bitter feelings and grudges you may have towards others.  Open yourself to the positive and cleansing energy that is out there.  This is a time of love, so allow it to fill you up.  Utilizing the light of positive energy can help you forgive, which will break the hold of negativity weighing you down.

The few days leading up to the New Moon, may seem discouraging, and emotionally tiring.  This is not a time for starting anything new.  Direct your energies and time during these lead in days to finishing projects already in the works.  New Moons signal the start to new cycles, with new pathways or directions.  Once the New Moon happens it will be time for starting new projects.

During this Piscean energy, expect the possibility for confusion.  It can either bring the clouds of confusion to a situation, or the more productive energy of fertile creativity and imagination.  It's reflective of how you choose to pursue things.  Your time will be best spent on matters that pertain to creativity, and spiritual/metaphysical pursuits.

Planet Neptune whose ruling sign is Pisces, will be conjunct with the New Moon, which will magnify the theme for this cycle, spiritualism.  Neptune projects a lack of clarity, being the planet of delusion, confusion, and illusion.  It also represents compassion, creativity, and spirituality.

Chiron will also be conjunct the New Moon, so the atmosphere is ripe for starting some spiritual healing.  

Mars is still in retrograde, so there is a certain amount of internalizing with anger issues going on, and the potential for  feeling in a funk.  It shouldn't be anything intense and should pass quickly.

With Mercury in Pisces opposing Mars in retrograde, Mars and Mercury in a T-Square with the nodal axis, motivation could be low.  Thinking about something might seem easier than putting it into action.  As mentioned earlier, the theme for this time is spirituality, so your thoughts will likely lean to the spiritual.  With motivation being on the low side, it's a good time to work on the internal.  Go to a place of introspection.  Maybe find a calm place to relax, and do some meditation.  This Moon is a good time for exploring the subconscious, dreams...whatever lies below the surface.  Engage in the creative.  Involving yourself in something of a creative nature can help you escape from the dull day to day stuff.  Maybe even volunteer your time to help others.

(Constellation of Pisces)
This New Moon is trine Saturn and sextile Jupiter, which can bring a wealth of opportunities for manifesting goals that are practical and realistic.  

Jupiter is in opposition to Pluto.  As optimistic as you might feel about releasing/letting go of some serious demons, there is the potential for opening the proverbial "can of worms" in the unconscious mind.  You might find it a bit more difficult to release some of the heavier issues, so don't be surprised if you encounter a bit of a struggle.

Monday, February 13, 2012

St. Valentine's Day Wishes , 2012...

At the time of certain holidays, I have begun putting together a post of art and quotes as a form of well wishes.  In this instance, the following is my Valentine's card to everyone.  Whether you spend your day with friends, family, or a significant other, here's wishing you a wonderful day of hearts and flowers...with some chocolates thrown in...

("Love", Gustav Klimt  c.1895)

"Love is like a friendship caught on fire.  In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, But still only light and flickering.  As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable."

~ Bruce Lee

("Lovelace Abduction Clarissa Harlowe",  Louis Edouard  Dubufe  c.1867)
"Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires."

~ Francois de la Rochefoucauld 

("The Kiss", Gustav Klimt  c.1907/08)
"A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous."

~ Ingrid Bergman 

("Woman In Love",  Henry Nelson O'Neil  c.1856) 
 "Immature love says: 'I love you because I need you.'  Mature love says: 'I need you because I love you.' "

~ Erich Fromm

("The Swing", Jean-Honore Fragonard  c.1766)
"Life is the flower for which love is the honey."

~ Victor Hugo 

("Ladies Reading A Love Letter", Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller  c. 1841)
 "Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs."

~ William Shakespeare

("Lovers", Pal Szinyei Merse  c.1869)
"For it was not into my ear you whispered, but into my heart.  It was not my lips you kissed, but my soul."

~ Judy Garland 

("Spring Night", Alphonse Maria Mucha  c. 1910)
"Love is a canvas furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination."

~ Voltaire 

("Romeo & Juliet", Sir Frank Dicksee)
"Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."

~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 

("The Fountain of Love", Jean-Honore Fragonard  c.1785)
"Love is metaphysical gravity."

~ R. Buckminster Fuller 

("The Love Letter", Jean-Honore Fragonard  c.1769/70)
"Love is a gross exaggeration  of the difference between one person and everybody else."

~ George Bernard Shaw

("The Confession of Love", Jean-Honore Fragonard   c. 1771)
"At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet."

~ Plato

("Love's Shadow", Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys  c. 1867)
 "I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love."

~ Mother Teresa

Hearts, Chocolates, & Roses...Oh My...

"Love is the irresistible desire to be desired irresistibly."

~ Robert Frost

Valentine's Day is tomorrow.  A day of love, and the expression of love to those we hold most dear.  As I filled out the card I was sending to my parents for their anniversary (they were married on Valentine's Day), I began to think about Valentine cards, and the other gifts of the day.  Anything with a heart on it. Boxes of chocolate candies.  Bouquets of roses. thoughts led me around to some questions.  

How did the shape of the Valentine's heart come about?  I have seen photographs and drawings of a real human heart, and they don't match up. How did people come to give chocolates?  What is the significance of roses? It was time to do some detective work...

The Valentine's Heart

(Cyrene coin)
I found two main schools of thought on the current heart shapes origins.  The first involved the ancient city-state of Cyrene in the 17th Century B.C.  They had a very profitable trade in a now extinct North African plant called Silphium.  It's use was mainly as a seasoning, but it was also said to be used as a form of contraceptive. Cyrene's economy was so reliant on the seed bearing plant, they depicted a drawing of the heart shaped seedpod on coins (pictured).  The seedpods contraceptive use was said to be linked to sex and by extension love, so that's how the shape got its start as the symbol for our center of love:  the heart.
(St. Margaret Mary Alocoque)

The other main explanation comes from the Catholic Church.  Their contention is that the modern heart shape didn't come along until the 17th Century.  The shapes discovery is credited to St. Margaret Mary Alocoque.  The story is she had a vision of the heart shape surrounded by a ring of thorns.  If this sounds familiar to you, the symbol is known as the "Sacrad Heart of Jesus". It is associated with devotion and love.  Scholars will concede that the heart shape may have been popularized by the Sacrad heart, but many believe that the shape existed earlier than the 1600's.
(Sacrad Heart of Jesus)

(Early Valentine card)
Other theories include the belief that it came from botched attempts to draw the human heart. The belief that medieval artists may have created the shape from early descriptions of the human heart being rounded at the top and pointy on the bottom.  Courtly love was the tradition of the time, so that may have started the association of the heart shape with romance.  There are also those that believe the shape came from elements of the female anatomy ( the shape of breasts, and/or the shape of  a woman's rear end).

The heart became a true symbol of love and romance as depicted on Valentine cards in 17th Century England, as the exchanging of Valentines became popular during that time.  Early Valentine cards were usually adorned with a heart and various bows and ribbons.


Whether shaped like a big, red heart, or topped with a bow, boxed chocolates are a staple on Valentine's Day.  Over the span of one year, women purchase more chocolate than men at a whopping 75%.  However, over the few days leading up to Valentine's Day, men are the winners at about 75% of chocolate sales.  How did chocolate become such a staple as a Valentine's Day expression of love?  I think most of the candies' allure lies within the history of this popular confection.

(raw cacao beans)
Chocolate can be traced back to Aztec civilization, where is was a popular beverage and gift.  Originally a drink made from the fruit of the cacao tree, 'chocolate' was believed to be a source of great energy. The scientific name for the trees' fruit is 'Theobroma Cacao'.  Translated from Greek, the name literally means "food of the Gods".  The cacao beans would be dried and fermented before being roasted.  Once roasting was finished, the beans would be ground into a paste that would be mixed with hot water.  This liquid mixture would be quite oily.  The liquid would then go through a mixing process between two containers, one held a great distance from the other. (I have seen this mixing method before.  I believe it is called "pulling".)  Pouring the mixture from one container to the other would eventually produce a frothy concoction that was sought after by those seeking pleasure.  Drinkers believed that the luxurious beverage would imbue them with great health benefits. Its use has also been linked to wedding ceremonies, the drink being widely used as a nuptial aid.
(Left: Montezuma; Right: Cortez)
The Emperor Montezuma was a big fan of the drink, consuming large quantities of it daily.  He would consume a large glass before visiting his harem.  Spanish explorer, Cortez, spoke of the drink in a report to Carlos I, of Spain:  "A divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.  A cup of this precious drink enables a man to walk for a whole day without food". Early on, the fruit of the Cacao tree was considered to be a source of vitality and power.  In 1585, when the first shipments arrived in Spain from Veracruz, it was a great subject of study.

I have heard from various sources over the years, that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.  It turns out that it's not, but it does still give pleasant sensations. Chocolate contains organic substances called alkaloids.  The most notable of these alkaloids is Theobromine, which works as a stimulant to the kidneys.
(Left: Theobromine; Right: Phenylethylamine)
Chocolate also contains endorphins like 'phenylethylamine', which has similar effects to amphetamines.  These are found naturally in the human body.  They act as a kind of "mood lifter" once they enter the bloodstream.  Seratonin is also present in chocolate, and has calming properties.  All of the various substances present in chocolate can explain why chocolate can evoke a number of feelings.
(Left: Milk Chocolate; Right: Dark Chocolate)
There are really no great benefits to ones health from eating chocolate.  It's easily seen when looking at the sugar and fat content of a chocolate bar.  A slightly better alternative than your average milk chocolate, is to go for a dark chocolate (my personal favorite).  Dark chocolate does have a high cacao butter content, but it has no added fat, and less sugar.  I prefer the darker chocolates as they are richer and have a bitter edge to them.

How did the sweetened forms of chocolate evolve?  The Aztecs drank their cacao beverage in its bitter form.  When the cacao bean and drink made its way to Spain, experiments were started in adding vanilla and sugar as sweetening agents.  These experiments resulted in 'hot chocolate'.  It's popularity was most prominent in the upper-classes as it was too expensive for the lower classes to afford.  As the use of cacao made its way into Europe, it was added to baked goods.  By the first half of the 18th century, it's usage increased.  More availability of goods containing chocolate meant more affordability in the general population of Europe and the Euro-colonies in the New World.

Now that the basic history of chocolate has shown the evolution of the cacao bean into a hot beverage and a baking additive, how did it become the creamy smooth confection known as chocolate candy?
(Conrad van Houten, and his cacao press)
The evolution of cocoa started in the year 1828, when Conrad van Houten of Holland created a cocoa press that made him the creator of refined cocoa powder.  With this press, the output of cocoa powder increased lowering its price even further.  Also, around this time, people started mixing the powder with milk, a concoction that became known as 'Hot Cocoa'.  The original mixture with water retained it's moniker of 'Hot Chocolate'. 

(Daniel Peter)
In the year 1876, Swiss chocolatier, Daniel Peter, invented the process for making candy out of milk chocolate.  This new process was quickly picked up by the head of a now famous candy company, Henri Nestle.

It wasn't until 1913 that people would experience the delicious treat of a filled candy. Swiss chocolate maker, Jules Sechaud, is credited with being the creator of the first chocolate candies centered with cream, and other fillings.  The modern soft centered chocolate was born.

These days there are chocolates to satisfy the palates of most candy lovers. From Aztec civilization to today chocolate has been given as a gift for various reasons, but nothing compares to the amount of chocolate given on this special day of love: Valentine's Day.  Sweets for the sweet...


I am sure that there are various varieties of flowers that people give on Valentine's Day, but the most popular one that symbolizes Valentine's Day is the rose.  I think it's obvious that red roses are the hands down winners as the most popular flower given to Valentines Day sweethearts.  There are a couple of others I always see around this time of year, too.  Here are three roses with their meanings, starting with the stereotypical red rose:

Red roses convey love and romance.  They symbolize perfection and beauty.  Giving one red rose to someone special says "I Love You".

Pink roses symbolize elegance and grace.  if you have a special someone, but you're not ready to say the 'L-word', then pink roses are for you.  A bouquet of pink roses is an expression of your admiration.  They also represent joyfulness.

I also see white roses when passing a Valentines display in a store.  They represent purity and innocence, as well as symbolizing honor and reverence.  The white rose is associated with marriages.  They also are an expression of remembrance.

If you mix red roses with white in a bouquet, it symbolizes unity.

Wishing everyone a Happy Valentine's Day!