Saturday, February 27, 2010

Carnival: The Beat Goes On

By the 15th century, Carnival in the Italian city of Florence was already a time honored tradition. The city itself was ancient, having been a thriving commercial center during Pagan (Roman) times, as one of the most important cities in northern Etruria.

Although there are obvious Pagan influences, as a Christian holiday the celebration of Carnival in Italy obviously does not go back to Pagan Roman times. Evidence for Carnival does go back at least to the 12th century in Venice, although the first recorded use of the designation "Carnival" is from a little later, in a document dated 1268. Predictably this document was a law written specifically to regulate the activities of the Carnival revelers. Over the centuries such laws provide much of the historical evidence pertaining to Carnival, and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the nature of this holiday!

But as the century of the Italian Renaissance drew to close, there was a new sheriff in town in Florence. In 1494 Girolamo Savonarola, with a little help from the King of France, overthrew the Medici family and established a "Christian Republic", with himself as it's leader. One of Savonarola's first acts was to increase the punishment for sodomy from the payment of a fine to the forfeit of one's life.

In addition to sodomy, Savonarola also sought to put an end to the frivolity, merry-making and law-breaking that had come to be associated with Carnival. But it should be remembered, though, that Carnival was then, as it is now, much more than just an excuse for lewd behavior and loud partying. It was also an extravagant outpouring of artistic creativity in the form of music, poetry and the visual arts. And it was also an extremely important commercial enterprise!

Florence's new leader wanted to replace all that merrymaking, artistry and money-grubbing with something completely different. Instead of rioutous nocturnal spectacles, Savonarola organized somber processions of boys, dressed in white. These boys went door to door collecting the "vanities" of the good people of Florence. These could be anything associated with moral degeneracy: books on philosophy and science, paintings and sculptures representing mythological themes, editions of Homer and Cicero and other Pagan authors, games of any kind, musical instruments, colorful clothing, perfume, make-up, anything whatsoever that might give pleasure to mind or body.

The word "vanity" comes from the latin "vanitas", which means "emptiness". Savonarola wanted to impress on the citizens of his Christian Republic that these "vanities" are indeed empty of all real value. And what better way to do that than to gather these items together, and set them on fire.

Thank the Gods, Savonarola's rule in Florence did not last long. By 1498 he was dead. In an interesting twist of fate, he was actually burned as a heretic, on order of the Pope, and in the same spot as his own infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities".

Marsilio Ficino wrote a brief essay, Contra Savonarolam, in which he attempted to explain how this madman had come to power, and, in particular, how he had come to enjoy the support of many Florentines. Ficino's answer was simple: Savonarola "had deceived so many otherwise clever and erudite Florentine men for nearly a full five years", but in fact the deception had been the work of "no mortal man, but the most crafty demon, and not a single demon, but a demonic horde." Ficino reiterated this: "Florentines, exceedingly unfortunate especially at this time, have been clandestinely besieged and seduced by a strong horde of demons under an angelic mask." [Quotes from Selected Writings of Girolama Savonarola, ed. Bebe, Borrelli, Passaro, p. 355]

Below are some nice collections of Carnival photos, mostly from Brazil, that others have very thoughtfully place online to hasten and abet our moral corruption:

Boston Globe's pics from 2010 Carnival
Anh Dep's photos from 2009

Colourlovers' 2008 pics
SeLuSaVa's photostream of 2007 Carnival pics