Historically, masquerade balls began as an extension of the Carnival – a festive season taking place immediately before Lent. Traditionally, according to the Christian calendar, it was a time marked for fasting and devout behavior, during which no parties or celebrations were held. Consequently, in the days leading up to Lent, all rich food and drink were disposed of beforehand as part of a giant party involving the whole community. During the 16th Century, this celebration evolved into public costumed festivities in Italy, particularly in Venice, where dances including masks were held for the upper classes. This practice however, was outlawed in 1779 during the King of Austria’s rule when the use of masks was completely forbidden. There were brief resurgences during the 19th Century, but it didn’t become a tradition in Venice again until it was reintroduced in 1979. Now, roughly 3 million people visit the festival each year, the most prominent event being the contest for the most beautiful mask which is held on the last weekend and judged by a panel consisting of prominent costume and fashion designers.
Masquerades were not limited to Italy though. During the early 18th Century, a Swiss count by the name of Johan Jacob Heidegger, is credited for bringing not only Venetian fashion, but the semi-public masquerade ball to London where it made its first appearance at the Haymarket Opera House and later at pleasure gardens like Vauxhall where masked characters in fancy dress would mingle with the crowds. These events soon became reputable for unseemly behavior, unescorted women and assignations (oh my…).
Masquerades have also been the center for political intrigue. In fact, Gustav III of Sweden was shot in the back during such an event at the Royal Opera House in 1792, and though he did survive the incident for several days, the wound eventually became infected and he died thirteen days later, his last words reportedly being, “I feel sleepy. A few moments rest would do me good.” Famously, Eugene Scribe and Daniel Auber wrote an opera about it named Gustav III, as did Giusepe Verdi, though his version was altered by censorship and named Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball).
During the 1770’s fashionable Londoners were invited to Carlisle House, in Soho Square, to attend masquerade balls hosted by Teresa Cornley. She was a soprano opera singer born in Venice whose numerous lovers included Cassanova, the father of Teresa’s daughter. Teresa rented the mansion for £180 a year and refurbished it with opulent furnishings. The British novelist Frances Burney wrote in 1970: The magnificence of the rooms, splendor of the illuminations and embellishments, and the brilliant appearance of the company exceeded anything I ever before saw.
The perfect setting, one would think, for a masquerade ball =)
Recently, the most notable masquerade ball was held by the multi-millionaire, Carlos de Beistegui at the Palazzo Labia in Venice in 1951. The guest list included Orson Welles, Barbara Hutton, Christian Dior and Salvador Dali (who by the way designed each other’s costumes).The intrigue involved in guests deliberately hiding their appearances, the game of guessing who’s who, and the elaborate costumes that go with it, are elements made to lure and entice. After all, most of us are curious by nature and enjoy uncovering that which is hidden.