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

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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

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