Carnival and the Spectacle of Bodies

(featured image: The Carousel bar at Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans).

When you think of Carnival, you might think of New Orleans and the boisterous, pre-Lenten festival that leads up to Mardi Gras, also called Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday.

Fat Tuesday epitomizes the essence of Carnival: it is the ultimate celebration of decadence. Rich foods and sweets are to be consumed in excess before Lent starts, the forty days before Easter that is observed by Catholics and some other Christian denominations. Lent is a solemn season, akin to mourning, marked by ritual fasting and abstaining from festivities, and ends with the celebration of Easter.

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St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans, the home of Mardi Gras.

For many Catholics and other Christians, the season of Carnival, and Fat Tuesday in particular, is the last chance to stock up on food, booze, and partake in debauchery before Lent begins. For sixteenth century Italian Catholics, however, having fun during the season of Carnival meant looking at dissected bodies.

While anatomical dissections were a popular pastime for Italians who were fortunate to live in a University city all year round, Carnival was an especially good time for public dissections. “Carnival was seen as an appropriate time for utilia spectacula, or ‘useful spectacles’,” writes Joanna Ebenstein in The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & The Ecstatic, “as bodies decayed relatively slowly in spring, and the general population was available to attend because they were already on holiday,” (123).

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The back cover of The Anatomical Venus, displaying a wax model.

The ideal candidate for a dissection was a criminal, because carnival dissections “acted as a sort of morality tale… in which the disorder of sin was transformed, via the sacrifice of an executed criminal, into a social good.” However, the Italians were not so rigid in their faith that the dissections could not take place if there were no deceased convicts available. Exceptions could certainly be made so that “students, aristocrats, and masked revellers” alike could bear witness to the uncanniness of the cut-open dead body.

In addition to entertainment, these Carnival dissections also served another purpose, says Ebenstein, and that was to provide Italians with “a safe environment for the collective exploration of various anxieties about death and social regulation” Meditating on death was entirely appropriate to the season; after all, in the Catholic faith, the ensuing weeks of Lent is the time for mourning Christ’s death before Easter, when he is resurrected from his tomb.

While flaying perpetrators post-death is no longer an act of cultural celebration that we observe today, we do have other means of probing death in safe spaces that are also quite fun. Death Salon immediately comes to my mind. I attended Death Salon in 2015 at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and enjoyed a mix of sobering presentations and lighthearted fun, filled with evening activities such as listening to haunting murder ballads and drinking generous portions of specially brewed beer.

Music and booze and meditations on death – not so different from the essence of sixteenth century Italian Carnival, is it?

Source: Ebenstein, Joanna. The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & The Ecstatic. D.A.P., 2016.

*All images have been taken by me.

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