31 May, 2006

8. Cornos and courtesans

These bizarre cross-dressing mannequins lampoon a number of iconic items of Venetian apparel.

The fancy jackets, which appeared to be the objects for sale in this retail establishment, are ostentatiously decorative in a very attention-getting way. The sort of 'look-at-me' way that caused a number of Sumptuary Laws to be passed during the history of the Venetian Republic , limiting at various times the amount of all kinds of showiness allowed by the city-state.

The top and bottom ends of these mannequins parody the highest and the lowest ranks of Venetian society. The extravagantly high-heeled platform shoes echo the built-up shoes known as 'chopines' that were worn for a while by fashionable society women, but became associated with Venetian prostitutes who wore them so they could be elevated above ordinary women and thus stand more chance of being noticed by potential customers. They also may have kept the streetwalkers' feet dry and away from the dirt during and after especially high tides. Made of wood, the thick soles of the competitive prostitutes' chopines eventually grew to ridiculous and immobilizing heights – up to thirty inches or 75cm, according to some reports.

The heads of the mannequins are those of Doges of the Venetian Republic. Which ones, I have no idea, but for over a thousand years, the head man in Venice was an elected official – a Duke elected not by popular vote, but by an oligarchy, a large council of nobles from the great families who were the government of the Republic. The checks and balances built into the rules of election prevented hereditary succession and controlled potential abuses of the office, and it was a system that worked better than that of almost any other nation-state in Europe.

The symbol of the Doge since the 14th century was the distinctively-shaped headgear worn by these models: a white linen cap called a 'cuffietto' underneath a single-horned brocade cloth helmet called a 'corno'.

The Venetian Republic came to an end in 1797, after it had been conquered for the first time in its history. As Napoleon's French troops took power, a final meeting of the Great Council accepted their terms and dissolved the Republic, after which Ludovico Manin, the last Doge, removed his corno and then his cuffietto, handing it to his assistant with the words "Take this, I won't be needing it again."

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