History Buzz February 21, 2012: James Johnson: Unmasking the Past Boston University history professor examines mask-wearing in 18th-century Venice


History Buzz


Unmasking the Past

CAS prof examines mask-wearing in 18th-century Venice

Source: BU Today, 2-21-12
Woman Holding a Mask and a Pomegranate, James Johnson author of book Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic For his new book, James Johnson, a CAS associate professor of history, researched how masks were used by 18th-century Venetians. Woman Holding a Mask and a Pomegranate, Lorenzi Lippi, Musée d’Angers. Courtesy of Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resources, NY

James Johnson is the kind of historian who wants to get inside people’s heads.

In his 1996 book Listening in Paris: A Cultural History, the College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history, explored what it was like for people 200 years ago to attend concerts and how they experienced music differently from modern audiences. His newest book, Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic (University of California Press, 2011), investigates the subject of identity by focusing on the role that masks played in 18th-century Venice.

“As a historian I’m drawn to the inner experience of people who lived centuries ago,” he says. “That’s very elusive to research. You have to generalize from other clues, such as behavior.”

Why focus on mask-wearing as a way to research people’s ideas of self? Johnson, winner of a 1996 Metcalf Award, one of the University’s highest teaching honors, reasoned that uncovering why people disguised themselves in the past might reveal how they thought about identity. As he writes in the preface to Venice Incognito, he was drawn naturally to Venice, where the tradition of masking dates back to the 13th-century. The city’s history of mask-wearing continues today with Carnevale, the annual festival that begins 58 days before Easter and concludes today, Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, the last day before Lent.

Modern Carnevale revelers don masks largely for celebratory reasons. But as Johnson found through his research, the 18th-century masks themselves, and the reasons people wore them then, bear little resemblance to the feathered, sequined versions you see on partiers parading through the streets of Venice today.

BU Today spoke to Johnson about his research and his book, which recently won the 2011 George Mosse Prize from the American Historical Association.
Spectators buying tickets outside the theater, James Johnson author of book Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene RepublicVenetians, Johnson found, wore masks six months of the year. Spectators buying tickets outside the theater, Carlo Goldoni, Commedie (1788-95), vol. 21. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University

BU Today: What surprised you most in your research?

Johnson: To learn that Venetians wore masks six months out of the year, from when the theater season started in the fall through Carnevale. Also, they were not wearing masks to disguise themselves or for intrigue or corruption, as people visiting Venice at the time thought. It was a custom, a fashion….READ MORE


Anne-Marie Eze: Unique Venetian manuscripts on display at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


History Buzz

Unique Venetian manuscripts on display at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Source: Daily News Transcript, 6-2-11



Leonardo Bellini-Diedo family arms, 1464.jpg

Contributed photo/Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

An exquisitely detailed inside page of a commissione by Leonardo Bellini from 1464.

Like many grand women, Isabella Stewart Gardner kept private accounts of influential men, the keys to power and portraits of otherworldly beauties.

Now English art scholar and historian Anne-Marie Eze has revealed a rarely seen side of Gardner through a gorgeous exhibit of Venetian manuscripts from her private library never before shown to the public.

Small but full of riches, “Illuminating the Serenissima” showcases seven “commissioni,” elaborately decorated, handmade books that served as contracts for Venetian noblemen elected to serve as ambassadors or administrators for the then great maritime power.

Subtitled “Books of the Republic of Venice,” the show runs through June 19 in the museum’s Long Gallery where Gardner kept some of her 1,500 books in covered cases to protect them from light.

“Not everyone gets to see Mrs. Gardner’s books,” said Eze, postdoctoral curatorial fellow and one of the area’s top experts on illustrated manuscripts. “This is a great opportunity to see works that have been out of public view for many decades.”

From 697 to 1797, “La Serenissima” — the Most Serene Republic of Venice — ruled an empire that reached from mainland Italy to the eastern Mediterranean.

While most visitors come to the Renaissance style palazzo for its extensive collection of European, Islamic and Asian art, this subtly informative show opens a gorgeous window onto a distinctly Venetian art form and Gardner’s sophistication as a bibliophile.

Gardner director Anne Hawley said the exhibition “not only boasts beautiful objects that are usually inaccessible to visitors but further illustrates Isabella Gardner’s passion for Venetian art and history.”

Eze said commissioni were issued in pairs to nobles setting off on 16-month terms of duty in Venice’s provinces. One copy was kept by the government and the other given to the office-holder, who typically treasured it as an emblem of prestige.

Though essentially contracts, she said office-holders regarded them as “status symbols” and had them illuminated and bound according to the evolving conventions of their times.

Eze graduated with a bachelor’s degree with honors in classics and a master’s degree in library studies with a specialization in manuscript studies and historical bibliography from University College London. The focus of her doctoral dissertation was the infamous Venetian priest-turned-art dealer Abbe Luigi Celotti and 19th century illuminated miniatures.

While styles evolved, commissioni often featured artistic conventions such as an elaborately illustrated page with decorative figures and Latin text stating a solemn oath and the statues of the appointee’s service.

Over the course of the three centuries covered in the show, the illustrated pages grew more sophisticated featuring decorative borders, allegorical images and the appointee’s coat of arms.

Eze said the commissioni provide rich sources of information about Venetian history, art and culture.

“Commissioni are important to the study of Venetian art and history because they are dated sources of style about illumination, bookbinding and iconography as well as heraldry, portraiture and biographical information about their owners,” she said. “Though thousands were produced under the Republic, commissioni are intrinsically rare because only two copies of each were ever made.”

Small flashlights are hung near the commissioni and binders to help visitors view their exquisite details without damaging the fragile manuscripts.

To the careful viewer, the images provide a remarkable catalog of Venetian art and history.

Created by the most skilled illuminator of the 16th century, the commissioni of Francesco Donato features a winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark, patron saint of Venice and an image of the Virgin and Child.

Researching the manuscript from 1546, Eze discovered an apparent forgery worthy of a Dan Brown mystery. The manuscript had been signed with a curious T-like mark — apparently added many years later by the owner or a dealer — to mislead potential buyers into thinking it was the work of Tiziano Vecellio, popularly known as Titian.

A 1615 image by an unknown illustrator features a miniature of the appointee, Francesco Contarini and his patron saint worshiping a charming picture of the Virgin and Child.

The exhibit includes three exquisitely crafted binders, or covers, that progressed from goatskin to calfskin to hammered silver, bearing symbolic figures of great craft and artistry.

As the museum proceeds on schedule to complete its new wing, “Illuminating the Serenissima” should remind visitors that Gardner, acting upon advice from thoughtful advisers, appreciated and collected this distinctly Venetian kind of bound and illuminated manuscripts.

The show features seven of the 20 manuscripts Gardner purchased which Eze has been studying along with the founder’s extensive book collection.

She said Gardner purchased her first rare book in 1886, five years before her father’s death which provided some of the inheritance to support further acquisitions.

Eze said Gardner acquired four books in the exhibit and several others from Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard University’s first professor of art history, a friend and fellow member of Boston’s Dante Society. Letters between Norton and Gardner show he sold them to her near the end of his life because he felt confident she would preserve them rather than sell them piece-by-piece like other collectors.


WHAT: “Illuminating the Serenissima: Books of the Republic of Venice”

WHEN: Through June 19

WHERE: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, Boston

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

ADMISSION: Adults, $12; seniors, $10; students, $5; $2 off with same day admission from Museum of Fine Arts

INFO: 617-278-5156; www.gardnermuseum.org

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