Most of us, if we think about Giacomo Casanova at all, think about his reputation for seducing women. Calling someone “a Casanova” is not a compliment, and I’ve never been particularly interested in knowing the details of his life. So, this summer, when I arrived at Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century, on view at the Museum of Fine Art Boston, I thought, “Well, it’s a big exhibit. Check it out even if it isn’t really your thing.”
The first gallery of the exhibition contained a series of Canaletto’s cheerful paintings of the canals of Venice, where Casanova was born. In them, I saw a crisp, sunny version of Venice. Imbued with a sense of optimism and industry, these paintings radiate energy, and you can almost hear the gondoliers shouting and smell the fresh fish dinners being prepared inside.
The next gallery introduced a more mysterious aspect of Venetian culture: masks. Eighteenth century Venice was rigidly hierarchical, and upper class Venetians did not associate with the lower classes. People wore masks to hide their identity and social class, especially during the carnival festivities before Lent. In the absence of actual equality, masks allowed them to relax and have a good time together without the risk of literally losing face. Masks were also the norm in state-sponsored casinos, called Ridotti, and all but the wealthiest guests were obligated to wear masks when they played poker.
Casanova himself was familiar with the concept of hiding behind a mask. In his memoir, Story of My Life, he asked, “Why should I put on a mask before my dear reader?” And then he proceeded to chronicle, with shocking candor, stories of his travels through Europe, including many stories of incidents which we would now consider sexual misconduct. The remaining galleries of the exhibition brought to life these conquests, with paintings of both the places he visited and the women he wooed.
Before the exhibition came to Boston, it was on display in both Fort Worth and San Francisco. When it went up in those cities, it had a different title, Casanova: The Seduction of Europe. But then the #metoo movement came, and, seemingly overnight, our culture shifted. Stories of powerful men and the women they mistreated were suddenly everywhere. Masks were torn off, and men who had previously enjoyed positive reputations found themselves perfecting the art of the public apology and stepping down from their prestigious positions. A cheery line about a powerful man seducing Europe no longer felt right, so the exhibition’s title was changed to Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century.
I used to think of masks as being primarily about the wearers. I thought, “They wear masks because they don’t want us to know who they are.” As I walked through the galleries, though, I began to wonder if there’s more to it than that. When the #metoo movement exposed powerful men who had mistreated women, the accused men were very uncomfortable, but as a woman watching all the apologies, I was also uncomfortable. I wanted to go back to the time when Al Franken was a funny guy from Minnesota who became a respected senator. I wanted to think that stories of harassment were rare. Seeing the ugliness exposed was cathartic and healthy, but it was also hard.
Perhaps this is why I keep thinking about the Venetian masks. Those dark, pointy-nosed, multicolored, little masks look strange, but they made everyone comfortable. For a while, when you wore one, you could socialize with the people you would ordinarily snub. The masks relieved both the poor and the wealthy from the burden of their social class. Everyone could enter the glittering world of parties without the discomfort of being seen.
Arguably, if your primary goals are to be comfortable, have a good time, and never change, wearing a mask and asking others to do so as well is the right move. Most of us, though, want a little bit more than that. We want to solve problems like sexual harassment in the workplace and income inequality. We want to have friends who know us for who we are. We want to feel confident that the people in authority over us are genuine and honest. We want a world in which we see each other face to face.
The price of this, of course, is some discomfort. I remember learning in college that the word confrontation literally means “with forehead”, since “frons” is the Latin for forehead. Today, confrontation has a somewhat negative connotation, and I wouldn’t like it if someone described me as a confrontational person. At its best, though, confrontation is about facing difficult things.
And that is what I hope for myself and for my students. I hope we confront new ideas that stretch our thinking. I hope we confront new people who seem totally different from us. I hope we confront things that seem ordinary or even ugly at first glance but reveal their inner beauty over time as we learn more about them. And, yes, I hope we confront some things that call on our sense of justice, that demand we take action to make the world better.
As I walked out of the exhibit in Boston, I realized that I still wasn’t that interested in Casanova as a person, but I was interested in his world because it’s not that different from our own. Fakeness and cover-ups are commonplace in our culture. You can crop the ugly parts of your life out of your Instagram posts. You can show up in a car you could never afford to buy. If you’re important enough, you can write an op-ed for the New York Times and not sign your name to it. Sometimes we recognize these masks for what they are, but other times we get lured into the fantasy, especially if it is a fantasy that makes us feel happy or comfortable. Like the Venetians, we can choose to be distracted by the glitter and buzz and outward appearance of things, or we can look more deeply into the reality of things. We can take to heart the words of Shakespeare, who, as usual, said it best.