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It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

Harlequin (as an antique French paper doll)

Harlequin (as an antique French paper doll)

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we try and try to explain things coherently, but, alas, some things just refuse to be contained into coherent categories. One of those things appropriately is “harlequin” a word which has come to mean all sorts of contradictory things—particularly when it is used to describe color.

A Scene from the Commedia dell'Arte with Harlequin and Punchinello (Nicolas Lancret, 1734, oil on canvas)

A Scene from the Commedia dell’Arte with Harlequin and Punchinello (Nicolas Lancret, 1734, oil on canvas)

Harlequin was a main character from the Italian Commedia dell arte, a form of masked farcical theater popular from the 16th through the 18th century. Commedia dell arte emphasized certain humorous stock characters (like the stingy master, the coquettish daughter, the cowardly suitor, and so forth). Harlequin was one of the most cunning and ingenious masked servants–a character so crafty that he frequently outsmarted himself. The character evolved directly from the cunning devil character of medieval pageant plays (with a bit of the king’s fool thrown in). Just as the harlequin predated Italian farcical comedy, he (and she) outlasted the form and became an integral part of circuses, burlesque shows, advertising, cartoons, and so forth, right up until the present.

Pinup Harlequin

Pinup Harlequin

Aside from their puckish wit and masks, harlequins were famed for their mottled garb of many colored diamonds or triangles. These spangled parti-colored outfits were one of the crowning glories of Commedia dell arte, and the look quickly became a part of show culture throughout the western world. Many artists, poets, and marketers were inspired by the bold & brassy look of harlequins and the word became used to describe colors and patterns.

Harlequin (yellow-green)

Harlequin (yellow-green)

Frustratingly, the word is used by different sources to describe completely different colors and patterns. Among the classically minded it still describes a triangular or diamond pattern of many different colors. To the British, from the nineteen-twenties onward, “harlequin has been the name for a bright shade of yellow-green (inclining towards green).

Harlequin car (it's a hard effect to photograph)

Harlequin car (it’s a hard effect to photograph)

To make matters even worse, in the early 21st century, paint manufacturers created a metallic paint which changes color depending on the viewing angle. This unearthly effect is accomplished by the reflection/refraction of light upon tiny aluminum chips coated with magnesium fluoride (all embedded within chromium). Naturally one of the marketing names the paint makers chose for their product was “harlequin”.

Royal Doulton Harlequin rack plate After an original work by LeRoy Neiman

Royal Doulton Harlequin rack plate
After an original work by LeRoy Neiman

Harlequin is even used to describe a garish mélange of many crazy colors with virtually no discernible pattern!  So if you are reading a contemporary work and a color is described as “harlequin” you will have to work out for yourself what it means. The whole mess makes me feel like I have been tricked by a masked fraudster from Baroque Italy. Quite possibly we all have been.

default-ehow-images-a05-4j-6b-did-harlequin-come-800x800Postscript:  As a special bonus, I am also mentioning harrlequin colored Great Danes (as suggested by bmellor2013 in her comment below.  Apparently the pattern (or at least the name for it) is unique to certain Great Danes.  Wikipedia defines the Harlequin coat as follows:

The base color is pure white with black torn patches irregularly and well distributed over the entire body; a pure white neck is preferred. The black patches should never be large enough to give the appearance of a blanket, nor so small as to give a stippled or dappled effect. Eligible, but less desirable, are a few small grey patches (this grey is consistent with a Merle marking) or a white base with single black hairs showing through, which tend to give a salt and pepper or dirty effect.

Wow! Dog coats are serious business–especially for the Great Dane, the princely “Apollo of Dogs”.  Here is a harlequin Dane relaxing with his human companion.

Harlequin Great Dane

Harlequin Great Dane

Two black sail cory cats--Corydoras melanistius (Photo Credit: Daniel Cardoso)

When I was a child, I kept tropical fish. The first tank I had in my bedroom was an Amazon community tank where angelfish, neons, serpa tetras and hatchetfish lived in a little miniature paradise of plastic swordplants and petrified stone.  Among the very first batch of fish I added to this tank were two adorable little masked Corydoras catfish.  The Corydoras genus consists of over a hundred and fifty species of small friendly armored catfishes from South America.  Corydoras means helmet-skin in Greek because these fish are armored catfish with two rows of bony plates running down their bodies (like the superfamily Loricarioidea). Most of the “cories” are only an inch or two in size.

These fish are popular with hobbyists because they are extremely endearing.  They race around the tank in bursts and then root enthusiastically through sand and gravel (burying their bewhiskered snout to the level of their eyes).  They like to have other cories for companions.  Occasionally they dart to the top of the water for a little sip of air.  Like most catfish, their fins have a leading spine for protection.  Unfortunately when I got my two cories, one of the two fish freaked out and deployed his spine thereby injuring the other fish’s gills.  It was very touching how the catfish which accidentally harmed its friend would hover near the hurt fish nudging him (or her) to eat and to swim up for sips of air.  Unfortunately it was no good and there was no way I could help the tiny injured corydoras. After a few sad days, the poor catfish was the first fatality in my tropical tank.  Death came quickly to my underwater paradise and would thereafter be a frequent guest. I was very upset.  I buried the fish on a big hill in a little tiny cardboard box (according it an honor that few of my other fish ever received).  It was the first of my many, many failures as an aquarium keeper, but it provided me with an abiding lesson about fish personality–which is more nuanced, deep, and likeable than most people suppose.

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