Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Life of Seduction: The Carnivalesque Venice of the 1700s at New Orleans Museum of Art

It was once among the richest cities on the continent, a home port for flotillas of  ships and a magnet for artists and entrepreneurs despite its floods and epidemics. It never fully recovered from being on the wrong side of a war, yet its elaborate architecture, music, culture and carnival rituals imbued it with a reputation for romantic hedonism that few cities could match. Descriptions of Venice often sound a lot like New Orleans, and this colorfully elegant exhibit of 18th century Venetian paintings only reiterates that impression of a surreal place where theatrical ambiance and non-stop joi de vivre prevailed in spite of – or perhaps because of – its perilous position as a low lying city surrounded by water.

Superbly curated by Giandomenico Romanelli, it provides a revealing look at how an ingrained carnival culture can lend a near mythic aura to aspects of civic affairs via a performance art quality of street life in visually operatic settings. Allegory of the Triumph of Venice, top, looks like the most opulent Mardi Gras float ever, a massive triple decker pulled by elephants and crammed with resplendent royals, knights, noblewomen, saints, angels and city officials. Attributed to Joseph Heintz the Younger, it was actually a history painting celebrating Venice's victory over the Turks in 1687 – but it blends seamlessly with Gabriel Bella's Fat Thursday Festivities in the Piazzetta, above, where costumed celebrants mingle with acrobats and performers in a theatrical urban setting. Venetians' flair for the carnivalesque was evident year round in commedia dell'arte street theater performances like the one in Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's great painting, The Minuet, above left, where an aristocratic beauty is surrounded by grotesque maskers. One of the New Orleans Museum of Art's longtime holdings, it finally appears in a context that elucidates its wild psychological intensity.

But as we see in Pietro Longhi's Il Ridotto, above, masquerade was a way of life in a city where illegal casinos proliferated and elegantly stylish masks were de rigueur for prominent citizens who preferred to remain anonymous. Originated by the New Orleans Museum of Art and organized by Contemporenea Progetti,  A Life of Seduction: Venice in the 1700s is on view through May 21, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100. ~Bookhardt

See Also: Designing Pandemonium:
An Art History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Mardi Gras has long existed as a multi-dimensional phenomenon that reflects both the street and the elite, the mainstream and the esoteric, dark and light, Apollonian and Dionysian--although with Mardi Gras, as with all carnival celebrations, the Dionysian has always held a distinct advantage... More>>