A Roman Carnival; Modernity's pilgrimage

Pre-Lenten Festivities Once Enlivened the Eternal City

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ROME, FEB. 18, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Every year, Romans look forward to the few days of Carnival to brighten the bleak days of February (this year marked with the first snowstorm since 2005). These festivities, which date back to the Middle Ages, started as a local amusement, grew into a papal program and ultimately captured the attention of foreigners who traveled to Rome for the explicit purpose of watching the spectacle.


 
A new exhibition that opened last week in the Museo di Roma traces the colorful history of this celebration through artifacts, paintings and photographs. “The Roman Carnival” gathers together more than 80 images and will be on display until April 5.
 
The Roman Carnival is a six-day festival leading up to Ash Wednesday in preparation for the long period of Lent -- formerly lived much more austerely than today. The masquerades and pageants accompanying the event seem to derive from the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, a week in December when the slaves and masters changed places.
 
The Carnival was also inspired by the desire to upset the social order, if only for a few days. Under masks, everyone became the same -- the nobles could carouse like peasants and the lower classes could pose as nobles. To keep some semblance of order, however, priest and military costumes were outlawed.
 
In the early years, these amusements were localized to a few popular quarters of Rome such as Testaccio, but in 1466, Pope Paul II Barbo transferred the carnival to what would become its lifelong home; the mile-long Via del Corso, the straightest road in Rome. The fashionable palaces on the road were all equipped with balconies to watch the spectacles and bleachers were constructed on the sides of the road.
 
Dozens of watercolors capture the scenes, some painstakingly precise in recording every detail of costume and carriage as the masquerade parade opens the Carnival. Others, such as José Banlliure y Gill’s canvas from 1879, use the impressionistic style to convey the movement and excitement in the air.
 
The paintings by Italian, British, French, Spanish, German and Russian visitors record many facets of the event, much like the various photographs of our modern tourists. Some loved to capture the striking costumes, while others were enthralled by the clever Roman games. Extendable pincers appear in many images, used to proffer nosegays from the streets to local beauties. Confetti battles dominate others, as Romans pelt each other with candied almonds and colored paper.
 
The costumes played a huge role at Carnival. Hans Christian Anderson noted that even the poorest Romans cut holes in oranges to make eyes or sewed lettuce leaves on their clothes to join in the masquerade. When Pope Paul organized the Carnival, nobles dressed as Olympians or Knights of the Round table to elevate their fellow citizens. In 1805 artist Antonio Canova designed a float featuring the gods going to the wedding of Cupid and Psyche, pictured in the exhibition. In the uncomfortable years of the French Revolution, costumes became less exalted; tradesmen, fallen nobles and animals grew common. As of the 19th century the characters from the Commedia Italiana were preferred, such as the Neapolitan Pucinella.
 
The days of Carnival were occupied by races. There were races of Jews, young men, old men and even donkeys, but eventually all the competitions gave way to the Barbary horse race. Barbary horses, once imported from the African coast, but then bred and raised on Roman noble estates, were lined up in Piazza del Popolo. The horses were riderless, spiked metal balls tied around them. The horses raced down the long straight street, spurred on by the spiked balls until they were caught in nets around Piazza Venezia. This race, the Roman Palio, was so beloved that it gave its name to the street, Via del Corso.
 
The last day of Carnival brought the most anticipated activity of all, the "Moccoletti." This game involved lighting candles and trying to extinguish the flames of others while keeping one’s own. Painter Ippolito Caffi depicted the hundreds of candles in a striking canvas from the 19th century.
 
Over the centuries, the attraction of the Carnival was enhanced by mysterious murders, exotic visitors and occasional accidents during the horse race. Several popes suspended Carnival, particularly during the period of the Reformation, and slowly the custom began to decline. In 1882 the city halted the Barbary races and the curtain fell on the Roman Carnival. Now its counterparts in Venice, San Remo and Rio de Janeiro have eclipsed the Roman event, which is limited to a few costumed children racing merrily through the squares of Rome.
 
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Believing at Lourdes

Generally speaking, a "buzz" surrounding a Catholic-themed movie bodes poorly for its sacred content. With the exception of Mel Gibson’s 2004 “Passion,” (pelted with a firestorm of criticism), the more attention a movie about religion garners, the more likely it will bash Catholics.
 
So when “Lourdes,” a film by Austrian director Jessica Hausner, premiered to accolades at the Venice Film Festival and won an award from the Atheist’s Union (although I thought the Atheist film prize was called Palme D’Or), I braced myself for the worst.
 
Hausner took me completely off guard however, with this warm and very human movie; not pious, but respectful, not evangelizing but not off-putting either.
 
The story revolves around a young Frenchwoman, Christine, who is wheelchair bound with what seems to be multiple sclerosis. Her arms, locked rigidly across her body, seem as confining as her metal chair. Ethereal, with big eyes and a gently wry expression, she is not a figure of pity, but almost of an other-worldly quality amidst unfamiliar surroundings.
 
Christine is not particularly devout and has come to Lourdes mostly for company and a change of scenery, rather than any hope of a miracle cure. She is the first to say that she “prefers cultural sites, like Rome, to religious ones” (earning my immediately sympathy). In a simple spirit of camaraderie, she joins the masses of people of every color, language and malady -- spiritual or physical -- gathered at Lourdes.
 
Hausner doesn’t conceal the commercialization of sacred sites. Huge souvenir emporiums and massive tourist infrastructures illustrate the business of Lourdes. Living in Rome as I do, and after a recent visit to the Holy Land, the film struck a chord with its jarring juxtapositions of sacred and profane. But when Hausner allows the Basilica of Lourdes to come into view, the plastic gaudiness gives way to the commanding majesty of the Church. The breathtaking building stands against the hills and the sky, very much a symbol of something greater than the economic activity around it.
 
The film takes the viewer to Lourdes through the eyes of Christine, as she lines up to touch the walls of the Grotto, bathe in the waters or receive the blessing of the sick. Never does Hausner ridicule the faithful and their prayers for health, but allows the viewer into a world where the ill are the privileged class and the healthy are bystanders.
 
Sound plays an important role in the work, where the hum of voices replaces a soundtrack and scraping chairs, clinking flatware and shuffling feet provide percussion. The only softening of the harsh sounds of daily life comes in the scenes of sacred activities, where the audience is soothed by chant, organs or strains of “Ave Maria.”
 
Hausner adds a modern Greek chorus in the characters of two women who oscillate between doubt and belief. Their questions are meant to echo our own, especially when faced with a potential miracle. Why her and not the other? Is she even a believer? What happens after a miracle?
 
The round-faced, gentle priest accompanying the group is sympathetically portrayed, far from the modern caricatures of priests that infect contemporary cinema. He emphasizes the true purpose of Lourdes: not to cure the body, but to help people to accept divine will as did the Mother of God. He asks the key question, whether the greater ailment is that of a body paralyzed by illness, or that or a soul paralyzed by doubt and fear? His faith is firmly rooted, but even he is not immune to the temptation of basking in the limelight of a miracle.
 
In this film, Catholics will appreciate the nuances of intercession, as an older woman develops an all-consuming concern for the healing of Christina. Her simple belief, her constant intercession and ultimately Christina’s confession, will bear fruit as the young paraplegic walks.
 
The ‘cure’ is only the midpoint of the film; the real questions start from this point. Is it a remission of the illness? Is it divine intervention? Will it last? What will Christina do next? Where does the intercessor’s work end and at what cost does this cure come?
 
If Christina was like a wide-eyed child in her chair, once on her feet she soon becomes an adolescent. Now that her physical infirmity is removed, she is at the mercy of her spiritual weakness. Like the assistants from the Order of Malta who are often represented flirting, drinking or joking skeptically, she tries to share in the amusements she has missed in her years of illness.
 
While some may see this as hypocrisy or as an assertion that religion is meaninglessness, these foibles struck me as warmly and compassionately human -- a sense of hope for us all.
 
While certainly not a fast-paced film, the lack of blasphemy, nudity or profanity in "Lourdes" was very refreshing and its story successfully speaks to a modern public who view sacred shrines as a lucrative business catering to the credulous. It also offers the opportunity for a balanced and peaceful discussion about faith.
 
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org