Venice II: Mask Culture

 Posted by on March 15, 2012  Italy  8 Responses »
Mar 152012
 

Often in class I’m lecturing on some aspect of the Renaissance, of Rome, of Florence, and find myself needing to end a sentence with, “…well, except Venice, but Venice was weird.”

Venice is weird.  Very weird.  More weird than you think it is, and hopefully a taste of Venetian mask culture will make my point.  This is far from a comprehensive treatment, just a little review of tidbits I’ve picked up from the odd lecture here and there, and from visiting many, many mask shops.

Three types of masks roam wild in the shops (and, during Carnival on the streets) in Venice: Festival Masks, everyday masks, and Commedia dell’Arte masks.

Everyday Masks:

Two wise Carnival goers in decorated Bauta, the most comfortable full-face concealing mask.

Yes, there are such things, or rather there were.  Venice was an island capital, ruling a small land empire centered around its lagoon, plus a vast and far-flung naval empire stretching into the distant East.  It ruled numerous coastal cities and fortresses in Greece and the Middle East, and had constant dealings with exotic peoples that gave it great wealth, valuable trade secrets, and made it an object of envy and suspicion from the rest of Christendom.  Its status at the great central port of the Mediterranean made it a center of everything that had a center: trade, commerce, printing, philosophy, literature, fashion, languages, slavery, silk, paper, heresy, plague, prostitution, perfumes, theater, crime, and especially of exiles, as those who made the rest of the world too hot to hold them ran to the impregnable cosmopolitan island where so many strange peoples mixed refugee statesmen and poets and heretics and deposed kings and fallen tyrants could all hide safe from powerful but landlocked enemies.  Even the Medici traditionally picked Venice for their home-in-exile.

Venice was thus a nest of wealth, sin, crime, disease (so much disease!) and, above all, secrets.  Trade secrets were the most substantial, Venice’s glass trade in particular.  On the island of Murano, carefully segregated so the fires, an inevitability in pre-modern glass works, which periodically consumed the little island could not touch the city’s heart, the Venetians developed numerous new techniques which allowed them alone to produce very expensive marvels.  A famous example was their ability to create clear glass, using special quartz pebbles and imported soda ash, in an era when all rivals produced something yellow, brown or green.  They also kept innovating, so that every few generations, when outsiders did manage to smuggle out a secret, they gave up the old trade for a new miracle that only Venice could perform.  At many far-flung palaces in Sicily, in Spain, in the East, potentates prided themselves on local art, local produce, showcasing their nations’ glory, but still ordered the glass from Venice.

How does this relate to masks?  Venice was protective of its secrets, and passed severe laws to prevent their leakage.  Glass workers were strictly banned from communication with just about any outsider, and the Venetian nobility as well were for a long time legally forbidden to ever speak to a foreigner.  This is a sensible precaution, except when one has to, say, run a government, or participate in trade, or anything nobles actually do.  So, the custom developed that nobles would wear masks, and interact with foreigners in an official incognito, even though everyone knew they were nobles.  In fact, so codified was this rule, that I went to a talk on a 17th century case of a man who was very severely punished (imprisoned underground, i.e. in a watery pit!) for using a mask to dupe others into thinking he was a noble while cheating at gambling.  Venice was not amused.

Nobles did not have a monopoly on masks, they merely used them in a signature way.  Others used them in many aspects of Venetian life, for example prostitution.  For example, at one point the Patriarch (i.e. Cardinal) of Venice was concerned for Venice’s morals because the male prostitutes were pulling more business than the female.  An ordinance was passed permitting female prostitutes to display themselves nude in the windows of their establishments, to entice customers and encourage general heterosexuality.  The male prostitutes retaliated by appearing nude in the windows of their establishments wearing masks.  Anything one does while wearing a mask is legally “play” so unless it’s a severe crime (like defacing a Madonna) it isn’t prosecuted.

The everyday masks consist of the Bauta and the Muta (Moretta).

The Bauta is an incredibly comfortable and practical full-face mask, of which the upper part fits tight against the forehead, while the lower part is a triangular beak extending several inches forward.  This shape makes it easy to breath and speak, and not too difficult to eat and drink, without removing the mask.  The top is not rounded to go up to the hairline, but cut off horizontally in the middle of the forehead, to enable it to be worn with a hat.  The tricorn is the traditional companion, and combined with a black hood and long cloak, it makes the wearer into an amorphous, beaked cone.

If one wears any other kind of mask for a while (other than a simple half-mask or domino) one rapidly discovers why the Bauta is the shape it is, and that it really is a mask designed to be practical, concealing the face with minimal inconvenience. Originally the Bauta was leather, but later paper took over.  It was usually white, and often worn with a long black cloak, black hat, and a black hood, making for a very dramatic starkness.  It is the men’s mask.

The lady’s mask (brace yourselves, feminists) is the Moretta, or Muta, or “mute.”  It is a small oval-shaped mask which covers only the center of the face, leaving about an inch of skin visible all the way around.  It has round eye holes but no nostril holes and no mouth hole, and fits tightly to the face.

The curve of the mask largely conceals the shape of the nose, leaving a sense of complete blankness.  The effect of the completely formless, inhuman hole in the middle of the face, with nothing but the staring eyes, is distinctly eerie to behold.

I have no photos of women in muta because no one wears them. I do own one but haven’t photographed myself in it – too creepy.

A true Muta also has no straps.  Instead, a small button is sewn on the inside of the mask just where the lips are, and the wearer holds the mask on by gripping the button between her teeth.  This renders the wearer unable to speak, which, of course, a lady does not need to do.  (Grrrrr)  So prevalent was the Muta that, in parts of the 17th and 18th centuries, if a lady dressed in the finery of the upper classes went out without one, it was considered a declaration that she was a courtesan.  (Because our society still has issues, if you google image search “muta moretta” the first three hits at present are a woman in a muta doing dishes in a modern kitchen in her underwear.)

If shopping for masks in Venice, the Bauta is one of the most practical, usable masks one can choose, and is also easy to find in its authentic white or in a variety of fabulous decorated forms.  The Muta is also not hard to find, though most of the modern ones do have straps.  A well-made, well-sized Muta is guaranteed to creep people out, though if you are petite you may have trouble finding one that’s small enough, becuase it really needs to leave that inch of visible skin all around it or it doesn’t give off the same feeling of utter negation and inhumanity.

Festival Masks

Feathers and gold are just for special occasions.

Festival masks include all the spectacular, elaborate, idiosyncratic constructions of gold and feathers and flowers and animal faces and decoupage that fill the shops and stalls of Venice, and leak out into other tourist centers like Florence and Rome.  Such masks are art objects, eye-candy with little-to-no historicity to them.  Elaborate showpiece masks were indeed created for the pageants at carnivals, and worn at masked balls, but they were never more than costume pieces, and the truly elaborate ones made today of metallic lacework or covered with sparkling crystals are pure invention.  The charming animal masks, I’m sad to say, also have few historical precedents, except that the carnival floats did involve allegorical creatures of every sort you can imagine.

These masks are, when made the traditional way, papier-mâché, made from a special, very strong blue-gray paper which is layered in a plaster mold and held together with a mixture of water and a clear-drying white glue identical to Elmer’s.  (No flour is involved, unlike with elementary-school newspaper papier-mâché).  An original form for the mask is first made in re-usable oil-based modeling clay.  The clay form is covered with plaster to create the mold.  Then thousands of paper masks can be made from the mold.

Blue-gray paper drying inside a plastic mold. In a few hours it will be ready to have the rough edges trimmed off, then to be painted white and decorated.

Because the mold is the negative form, and the paper goes inside it, the first layer of paper you put down is the outer surface of the mask, and finer paper is used to make it smooth.  This technique means that every subtle texture and wrinkle that was on the clay transfers via the plaster to the paper, so you can create masks with very elaborate three-dimensional modeling, for example fine creases in the forehead and cheeks, quite easily, and reproduce the details with perfection every time.  Once complete, the masks are decorated with paint, decoupage and other items, and (when done properly) glazed with the same clear-drying white glue that formed them.  The result is reasonably sturdy so long as no strong pressures are put on it, and the plastic coating generated by the dried glue keeps it safe from small amounts of water, ink, food etc., making for a fairly sturdy product.

Blank masks, ready to become anything. The grotesque ones in the lower part are Commedia dell’Arte character masks.

A large portion of the masks currently for sale are made, not from paper, but from less sturdy mass-produced plastic.  These tend to be cheaper, but also break more easily, and when they do break they break completely, where the paper ones just get a bit bent and develop a fissure in the paint instead of cracking entirely.  The plastic ones also tend to be mass-decorated and less creative, but many of them are still beautiful.  It is also possible to buy blank masks, in both plastic and paper, to take home and decorate – I rarely manage to leave with fewer than 10 blank masks.

As for the cost of masks, on my last visit I observed the following prices:

  • Small, blank paint-it-yourself plastic mask, €2-€7
  • Small real paper paint-it-yourself blank mask (including Bauta) €8-20
  • Small, cheaply-decorated plastic mask (including Bauta) €12-25
  • More substantial and exciting paint-it-yourself blank mask (like a dragon or a lion) €25-35
  • Small, nicely hand decorated real paper mask €20-35
  • Large, more elaborate nicely decorated paper mask (including Bauta) €35-40
  • Wearable half-mask with feathers or fabric or veils or some such €45-60+
  • Large, very elaborate masks: €60 right up into the €200 range
  • Cheap quality real leather masks €30+
  • Authentic top quality real leather masks including stage-quality Commedia masks €150+

Commedia dell’Arte

The finest, most difficult to find, often the most expensive, and always the ugliest masks, are those of the Italian Comedy, or Commedia dell’Arte.  Most famous and popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, it is a great grandchild of Roman comedy, but because so much of the Middle Ages was illiterate, and so little low culture was recorded, we have little knowledge of the two generations in between.

The plays of the Commedia dell’Arte involve a set of stock characters who appear over and over in different scenarios.  Each character has a characteristic costume and signature mask, though individual mask designs can vary within set parameters (one wart or three, curly mustache or bushy mustache) etc.  They are all silly, distorted and exaggerated, and, from an artistic sense, ugly.  This is because the figures are caricature parodies, intended to exaggerate character types the Renaissance and Enlightenment found funny.

A real Harlequin mask.

Many of the characters of the Commedia are famous and familiar, especially Harlequin, but most people familiar with Harlequin still don’t recognize a Harlequin mask if they see one, because the famous diamond pattern we associate with Harlequin is on the clothing, not the mask.  A Harlequin mask is black and pug-nosed with at least one large wart and sometimes a goofy mustache.

Paper Commedia masks abound in Venice and are by far the most economical choice when one wants to collect them all, but the masks that were (and are) used on stage are leather, not paper, and it is still possible to find leather masks in Venice, and elsewhere.  These masks are flexible and much more durable and comfortable.  They are also much more difficult to make, and consequently expensive.  Not only is leather a more expensive material than paper, but the process is more labor-intensive and requires more skill.

Leather mask molds, made of carved wood.

This is largely because the mold is backwards.  In making a paper mask, the mold is negative, and the soft paper goes inside.  In a leather mask the wooden mold is positive, and the leather is stretched over the outside.  This means that for the paper, fine details can be sculpted into the original and included in the mold, so every crease and wrinkle comes across perfectly in every paper copy.  With the leather masks, the outer surface of the leather is smooth, so fine details like wrinkles have to be tooled in by hand on every individual mask, making each product more unique, but also requiring a much more practiced hand.

For this reason there is an enormous difference between low- and high-quality  leather masks, in price and in detail.  Low quality leather masks, which are generally still quite awesome, usually lack any three-dimensional surface details, since they were made by simply stretching the leather over a mold without further tooling.  They also tend to have a rougher, more organic texture.  It is possible to find nice leather masks of this type for as little as thirty or forty euros.  On the other hand, the stage-quality, fully tooled ones are extremely smooth and shiny, and tend to start at 150 euros and go up and up and up.

A lower quality molded leather Pantalone mask (Pantalone = old Venetian merchant character)  Its roughness has a fun, crude feel that reminds me of orcs.

Top quality tooled leather Pantalone, with sheepskin eyebrows and a nice wart. To be worn with pointed white fake beard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just set side-by-side a leather stage-quality Commedia mask is generally much less beautiful than  carnival masks which cost less than half as much, but to me it’s worth it. The big difference comes when you put one on.

These beauties don’t need a human face behind them to look fantastic.

Donning a beautiful mask makes you look awesome and somewhat mysterious and exotic, but the masks themselves are independent art, and often look just as fantastic on the shelf or wall as on a person.  A Commedia mask, though, comes to life when it’s on a human face, and suddenly a strange, lively new creature is standing in the room.  I’ve never seen anything quite like the burst of delight that hits a friend’s face when she watches another friend pop on a Pulcinella or a Pantalone, or the absolute transformation of body language of the wearer as he sees himself in the mirror and feels like someone else.  It isn’t putting on a mask, it’s putting on a person, and the exaggerated eyebrows and ridiculous noses have been perfected over centuries to create a delightful, entertaining new life-form, the creature of the Comedy.  At home, where my many, many, too many Venetian masks range across the shelves, it’s the Carnival masks that always make first-time visitors ooh and aah, but when the moment comes to try one on I always reach first for the Commedia.

As for the characters themselves, I’ll review them in another post.

Meanwhile a quick survey:

I’m taking a jaunt to the US this month, and want to bring back some fun goodies for my Italian friends.  What non-perishable, portable, only-available-in-America food can you think of which would be a good present to bring back?  Just don’t say Twinkies – they’re so (in)famous I’ve already had a request!

Mar 022012
 

What is Venice’s carnival actually like?

Venice’s modern carnival is not a traditional folk and fertility festival.  It does not have mummers and green men and pitchforks and man-women and ceremonial uses of straw and swords and alcohol (for that see a friend’s excellent post on a Basque Carnival).  It is also not what it was in the Renaissance, an elaborate civic celebration-reversal, at which the rules of propriety were (witin limits) reversed, as the city displayed its wealth with gilded ships and gem-covered costumes, and paid vast sums to prominent artists to produce elaborate parade floats covered with mechanical universes and moving golden lions and actors dressed as confusing allegories.

What it is now is a very grand tourist attraction at which an already overwhelmingly beautiful and alien city is suddenly populated by fantastical creatures and time travelers in elegant finery and three-cornered hats.

A Fountain by the Doge’s Palace flows with wine. Really.

In Saint Mark’s square a not-very-well-engineered stage hosts mediocre entertainments, from ad hoc costume contests to poorly-microphoned musical acts.  Behind the closed doors of expensive palaces-turned-hotel-restaurant-theater, people pay $200+ a head to attend grand pseudo-period fantasy banquets and masked balls. Venice’s year-round delights also remain: the gold mosaic Basilica of San Marco, the Doge’s palace, unique and world-class museums and galleries.  All this is wonderful but unnecessary.  As I promised the friends who joined me for Carnival this year (and as they can now cheerfully confirm) one does not need any activities or entertainments of any kind to have a blast at Carnival.  One simply has to do one thing: get lost.

Even without its Carnival-only costumed population, Venice is eerily beautiful, and distant-feeling even when you’re there.  If reaching Florence feels like stepping into a cross-section of the past, our ancestors’ world, not ours, Venice feels like a cross-section of the past of a different species.  Everything is too delicate, ornamented with too many curves, too-elaborate windows, too colorful stonework, every surface a faerie facade.  Many of the palaces (there are no non-palaces in Venice) are pink, even the blown glass street lamps pink, but you don’t even notice that it’s pink because the color itself doesn’t register as much as the fact that everything is just a hair more beautiful, calculated for ornament rather than defense or practicality.  Where are the battlements?  Where the ditches?  Where the triangles of struggling grass between ill-laid streets?  This is not a real city, it’s some kind of theater set, all ornament with all the practical parts left out.


A main street in Venice.

Venice is also a maze of twisty passages all unique, and the most difficult city to navigate that I have ever found.  It isn’t just that it lacks a grid system, but that it lacks any main streets whatsoever and consists entirely of meandering alleys.  After all, the main streets are canals, so you can’t walk on them – imagine navigating any other town without being allowed to ever go on any large street.  In addition, no angle is 90°, no street is straight, no two points are connected by any kind of line, and a quarter of the streets are tunnels leading under palaces which have grown to cover them like a forest canopy uniting over an abandoned campsite.  The streets are also incredibly narrow, so one can’t look up at an angle and see that a particular tower or landmark is That Way therefore That Way is East.  The lack of 90° angles makes it very easy to get gradually turned around, and even people very good at navigating frequently end up thinking North is East and East South as a series of turns which seem to be heading consistently in one direction meander in another.  Hence my summary: in Venice one is either (A) in Saint Mark’s Square, (B) on the Rialto bridge, or (C) lost.

Standing on Rialto bridge, therefore not lost.

 

It is, in fact, possible to navigate in Venice, but it requires a huge amount of concentration and constant map checking, so unless one has an appointment, why bother?  Everything is equally beautiful.  It’s an island; it’s not as if you can accidentally fall off the edge and wind up in Padua.  Wherever you go there will be amazing palaces, intriguing mask shops, overpriced pizza, zillions and zillions of winged lions (Saint Mark, the symbol of the city) and you may as well turn left as right at any given point.  It’s like the genius of Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland, where joyful parents can sit down while kids run wild and wear themselves out on the self-contained plastic island which it is impossible for an unaccompanied child to escape.  While on this island, everything is fine.  The city is filled, furthermore, with signs pointing to either San Marco or the Rialto, so, wherever you are, you can find one of these two points and, from it, take the water shuttle to where you need to be.  In fact, I highly recommend finding a hotel as close as possible to Saint Mark’s square (here is my preferred), since then magically Venice is filled with signs directing you home.  Often, of course, a square will have two signs pointing to San Marco in completely different directions; both are correct, because there is no straight line, not in Venice.

Time flies incredibly when one is wandering from alley to alley through an alien wonderland, and no further planned activity is necessary.  Venice cycles through many repeated shops, selling the same mass-produced tourist items which are still worth getting, for the most part, since they’re really nice mass-produced tourist items: velvet pouches and purses, masks, lace, beautiful glass work, masks, silk and satin draperies, masks, art prints, masks, beads, masks, and also masks.  During Carnival masks appear even in the shops that don’t sell masks, and every restaurant and hotel hangs up a few of these mandatory proofs that one is not a stick-in-the-mud.  Between these and the costumes, the days vanish, an afternoon seeming an hour, as one wanders and wanders and simply wanders.  When footsore, one hops on the water bus and rides around the city circumference or along the grand canal, where the most elaborate palace facades face, since, after all, water, not land, is the intended approach to these grand houses.

It is worth mentioning that on the last weekend there is usually something quite spectacular in Saint Mark’s Square (a fire show when I went, with dancers with flaming spears, and a huge dragon puppet that they set on fire) but apart from that, none of the public entertainments are generally as exciting as the city itself.

A flaming cyclops at the Carnival finale.

 

There are four categories of costumes seen on the streets at Venice’s contemporary carnival.

The first are extremely elaborate, colorful fantasy pieces with full-face masks in bold, overwhelming colors and luxurious fabrics, many period but some modern, designed to create the most visually striking thing a human being can still arguably stand up in.  Some are home-made, many rented.  Most commonly one sees couples, pairs, one male one female, intended to be worn together, but sometimes solos and sometimes larger groups.  Such costumes completely restrict one’s ability to do anything, including eat, talk, see more than a tunnel in front of you, and also doom you to the mercy of temperature, and walking too becomes a challenge.  For this reason, these costumes cluster around San Marco square, where they stand to be seen and photographed, and one can spend happy hours in the square going from group to group and enjoying the ingenious whimsy of the tailor’s art.

 

Not all the costumes are designed to look or feel period.  Modern fabrics, contemporary neon colors, and modern themes are worked in.  Some of the more ambitious modern designs move farther and farther from the notion of “Garment”:

The average alley in Venice is about 4 feet wide.  This person will be here all day.

The second category are period pieces, inspired not by the wholly fantastic costumes of those who rode the parade floats in the Renaissance, but by the spectators:

The Eighteenth Century: when pink was still a manly color.

These costumes tend to imitate the period of the peak of the carnival’s opulence and fame, which was not, in fact, in the Renaissance proper, but in the Eighteenth Century, so the costumes one sees are mainly Eighteenth Century.  This means for gentlemen long waistcoats, lacy cuffs and cravats or jabots, tricorne hats, coats with vast pleated tails, richly worked brocades, white powdered wigs, heavy walking sticks, and the kind of leather shoes with buckles or bows that one associates in US culture with the founding fathers.  For ladies, the brocades are even more richly worked, the sleeves usually elbow-length with lace dripping to the wrists, the bodices taut and square with the lacing hidden, the skirts wide, not with circular hoops but with panniers which extend the skirts far out to each side (trivia of the moment, the word derives from baskets hung on either side of a donkey), and the wigs tall with clusters of bizarre objects like feathers and scarves and gems and seashells and toy boats woven into them in what should look like birds’ nests but do manage to register to the mind as hats.  Such costumes are worn sometimes with beautiful but practical half-masks, and sometimes without.

 

Venice: where ladies in hoop skirts go to take pictures of ladies in hoop skirts.

 

Third come irregular historical and whimsical pieces.  Someone always dresses as the Doge.  Other historical figures like Dante or Galileo may crop up.  Some adopt characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, so Pulcinella, Harlequin, others generic 13th or 14th or 15th or 16th or 17th or 19th Century dress.  Into this category then creep more marginal costumes: women in leather bodices and not much else, girls in Renn Fest gear, the odd Naruto or other anime creature, and young people with pink hair and neon green tail coats with sparkly skulls embroidered on them and platform shoes that light up.  Why not?

Only the Doge can have the Doge Hat. It’s the Best Hat.

Tolkein’s Elves put in an appearance.

 

Dramatically posing gothic silver crystal scale bird plague thing?

And last, there are little kids in the kind of cheap costumes as clowns or faeries or witches or batman that one buys mass-produced, just like at Halloween.

By my estimate 15% of the Carnival attendees are in costume.  Another 20% are just in masks, which they buy mostly on arrival to get into the spirit of the thing, and a further 15% succumb to the desire for costume enough to buy a cloak and/or hat to wear over coat and jeans.  Of those in fancy costume almost all are foreigners, mainly anglophone.  Of those just in masks, 50% may be Italian.  Keep in mind that Venice’s tourist population outnumbers its native population at least 3:1 at all times, moreso at Carnival, and that its separate population of resident foreign college students, also substantially anglophone, also outnumbers the native population not quite 2:1, making Venetians less than 20% of the people on the streets.  In fact, there are only 20,000 Venetians and something well over 100,000 outsiders at any given time, and most of the Venetians, for real estate price reasons, have retreated to living on the shore anyway.  A hotel or shop simply makes so much money that it is very difficult to turn that down in favor of a residence.  It is for this reason that it’s not rare to find someone who both identifies as Venetian and grew up in Padua.

Venice at Carnival is also incredibly crowded.  This year I went in the middle of a deadly cold snap, and it was simply very crowded.  In good weather it is so crowded that one can barely walk through the streets.  At one point I literally encountered deadlocked foot traffic, an intersection at which so many people were shoving in from all 4 directions that it became physically jammed with bodies and was impossible to move, and the poor people in the center were literally trapped and unable to escape – after fully 30 minutes of shoving I gave up and went back the way I came.

The question of whether one wants to go to Venice for Carnival thus comes down to how fun one thinks it is to see the city populated with fantastic creatures in among the masses.  Venice is always beautiful, the canals always serene, the sunsets always stunning, the mask shops always open, a simple ride around and around on the water bus always perfect.  During Carnival prices go up, hotels fill, restaurants run out of tables, streets are crammed with people, attendants outside monuments get more fed-up and rude, but in the streets one catches little dream-like glimpses Doges, and Counts and dramatic cloaked figures, and mysterious masked ladies, and fantastic creatures from the historic other-race that instinct tells you built this miracle city.  For me, it’s a fair trade.

Read more about Venice’s Mask Culture.

Jan 062012
 

The Italian legal kerfuffle over “Fake Centurions” abruptly came to make sense on my recent visit to Bologna, when I discovered the Legio I Italica camped out in the cathedral square.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legio I Italica is a group of top quality, professional Roman Legionary reenactors, who travel around Italy by invitation, making camp in various towns and cities in order to educate Italians, young and old, about the real life of the legions and the ancient world.  Their gear is superb, none of the plastic or anachronistic ornament of those who strut around Rome’s monuments.  Real steel, real bronze, real leather, but more than that.  These soldiers are bruised and bandaged, rough, crude, their sandals worn, their armor dented, their tunics sweat-stained.

They also include the parts of Roman gear we don’t tend to identify as Roman: a sweat-catching handkerchief around the neck, an anti-sun bandanna, broad straw sun-hats only subtly different from the hundreds for sale at street stalls a block away. Parts that reinforce the continuity between history’s dirty work and today’s, and decrease, rather than augmenting, the feeling of antiquity.  Parts that should be there.

Their demeanor is perfect too, a lazy, languid casualness in interacting, both with people, and with gear, so they really feel like soldiers on their day off.  “Hey, kid, wanna pull this string?”  (Hands small child trigger rope for massive crossbow).  “Naah, your Mom doesn’t need to help, here, just pull that.”  They often just sit, doing their own thing, until curious bystanders approach them, rather than accosting.

The juxtaposition of Roman Legion with Bologna’s main square’s elaborate cathedral, Renaissance facades, medieval fortress-palaces, and the statues of popes and allegorical figures watching is, of course, fantastic.

The most outstanding element may be their variety.  They don’t only include soldiers and support but all kinds of camp staff and hangers-on, everyone that might travel with a legion, including my favorite: the camp layabout who won’t do anything helpful.  Here he is refusing to come help this legionary answer questions for the nice lady.  Shortly he will move on to refusing to help the shoemaker, then refusing to help the cook…

The camp's cook

They do have a cook, complete with samples of all sorts of noxious Roman spices and ingredients.  For those not familiar, if there is one branch of human achievement whose progress has been unilaterally and consistently positive through all of human history, that branch is cooking.  Excluding current perversions of too-artificial ingredients and flavor-free, chemical-plumped out-of-season vegetables (which are issues of farming and distribution rather than cuisine) food has gotten better, better, better as new combinations, techniques and ingredients have expanded the possibilities, and made it possible to leave the stopgaps of the past behind.  Crude early grains became cooked grains, then flour, flat bread, bread which rose and was soft and scrumptious, eventually to such masterpieces as the cake and the croissant.

Brazier, used for heating nuts, meat, shoes, metal pokers... so why do my chestnuts taste like leather?

There are some left-behind recipes and ingredients that are certainly worth revisiting, but as Florentine dishes like tripe and boiled pig’s knuckles teach us, many “old-fashioned” or “rustic” dishes are code for “What we used to eat when we were under siege.”  Many ingredients have faded from the world of cooking because we found better ingredients, and two-thousand-year-old Roman cooking is one step above the random plants and dead animals one would eat if trapped on a desert island.   This camp cook wisely did not offer to let us taste Rue, or the infamous Garum, rotten fermented salty fish paste which the Romans slathered like ketchup on everything, even deserts.  But he did have enough to smell.

Their doctor is also superb.  He’s a Greek doctor, and will happily explain that he does not want to be here with these idiotic , ignorant Romans.  He studied in Athens, and in Egypt, and he has read the writings of Hippocrates, and he wants to use real medicine and perform real surgery, but nooo…  all these superstitious soldiers want are charms and prayers.  He prescribes sensible things like liver-based ointments and asparagus extracts, but they won’t listen to him unless he also has a shrine filled with irrelevant idols, and a winged phallus hanging from the rafters of the hospital tent.  By the time you’ve listened to his rant, you realize you know what every instrument on the desk is for.

Tricycle age is the correct age to meet one's first Roman legion

Everyone in the world should learn about Rome, but there is a unique import to teaching Italian children about the empire which was, in fact, their own.  This duty the Legio I Italica takes very seriously.

Learning is fun! So is chainmail!

All over the camp, inviting tables of Roman materials were left practically unsupervised, inviting tiny kids to begin as tiny kids do, by simply touching and exploring new objects, learning at their own pace about weight and texture, before asking Mom or Dad or a nearby captain what the heavy metal vest is for, or what the big red things are called.  Adults too were invited to explore the random detritus of the camp and discover for ourselves the tools of a Roman sandal maker, or the different items necessary for the good maintenance of a shield and armor.  Exploration rather than lecture was both more memorable, and more authentic-feeling as one wandered the camp receiving silent half-glares from centurions who were obviously just too lazy to shoo out these curious provincials.

Tools laid out on a table for hands-on exploration.
Camp fix-it guy, always running out of leather.

The doctor's desk

Standards displayed before the central tent

 

 

 

The greatest change, from Rome and Florence, is that all this was in service of Italians.  These legionaries are not a tourist attraction, nor interested, and nothing whatsoever is in English: conversations and banner announcements in Italian, all else in Latin.

A son of the literate elite, marked by his striped tunic, explains papyrus and mapmaking

Bologna was a perfect venue for them, a lively square, with a trickle of foreigners making the Tuscany tour, but alive with natives, families out for Sunday lunch, and visitors from other parts of Italy in town to taste Bologna’s famous tortellini, or its treasured Mortadella (Mortadella is to humble America sandwich bologna as a butter-soft mouth-watering Prosciutto is to the contents of a 7-11 ham sandwich).

A guide who works in Sicily recently described that he was taking an American around who really wanted a photo of a native old lady in traditional Sicilian dress.  They ran across just such an old lady in a tiny mountain village outside Taormina, wearing a traditional black dress with headdress, and even leading a little black lamb.  They stopped to ask her for a photo.  Smiling, she rubbed her fingers together, asking for cash.

Italy’s dependence on tourist cash cannot be overstated.  Economic discussions these days are monotonously discouraging, but it is still interesting to compare the recession woes of home to the recession woes of other lands.  I chatted yesterday with a man who retired from the exhaustion of chef-dom hoping to set up business on his own in a small way.

Taxes made a restaurant prohibitive, since the taxes on electricity, gas, water, sewage, phone and property rental would, he said, have required millions in overhead, and translated to a cost of more than 300 euros per day for taxes alone for every day a small shop or restaurant was open.  The more modest goal of becoming a guide still involved 200,000 euros’ investment in government licenses.  With enterprise so challenging to undertake (he waxed wistfully about how miraculous it is that other countries, hint, hint, have government subsidies to help launch small businesses), it is no surprise that someone might try to make a living camping by the Colosseum in a plastic helmet, or coax what one can from passing visitors.  This makes the Legio I Italica that much more admirable, as they work far from international tourist centers.  They receive money from the towns that hire them, but while working they solicit and accept no tips, and work away, with the beating sun, uncomfortable armor and no pants, to make sure little Italians grow up with a dose of the real mixed among their fantasies of their glorious ancestry.

The legion enjoys its well-earned tortellini bolognese and mortadella, because people who really know about Roman cuisine don't eat it!

The shoemaker's workstation

 

 

Arbitrary Pricing

 Posted by on October 26, 2011  Italy  No Responses »
Oct 262011
 

Drum roll please… time for the results of my Guess the Purse – Guess the Price challenge:

 

Purse #1: the unnecessarily quilted reptile purse

Purse #2: The inconveniently small reptile purse (giant clutch)

Purse #3: the crumpled trashbag look purse

 

I often stroll through what I call the “thousand dollar purse” district, but even I stopped short the first time I spotted Purse #2 in the window.  Did they put in an accidental extra digit?  I was used to trying to guess from a distance whether any given purse cost 200 or 400 or 600, but nothing had quite prepared me for quintuple digits.

This thousand-euro dress is made of hand painted art nouveau velvet lace and is beautiful and obviously very labor-intensive and I am totally comfortable with it costing a thousand euros.

I had known fashion items in the ten grand range existed, so it wasn’t that which shocked me as much as my complete inability to tell why that particular purse cost ten times what its neighbor did.  Not only did I not know, but I couldn’t even begin to understand how I might know, yet at the same time I’m very aware that for people connected with the world of fashion, all it would take is a glance to tell.  It was a language barrier.  Like how an architect fluently interprets the vocabulary of a facade, a mechanic the sounds of an engine, or a medieval person can recognize saints at a glance.  A moment of feeling what illiteracy must be like.

If these purses came with the chicken feet, and if they would run around and follow you and fetch your bag whenever you wanted... no, it still wouldn't be worth 2000 euros!

Except at the same time, Reason rebels:  10,900 euros!  It’s a purse!  It’s a glorified sack!  I could make one in 20 minutes out of fabric or duct-tape, and the materials can’t possibly cost more than a few hundred.  Nice ones are nice, and I have some bags I’m very fond of, but… is it from the Moon?  Made of the hide of the last surviving wyvern?  Does it cure disease and repel undead?  Is it electronically synched with a satellite which will shoot pickpockets with lazers from space?  Was the leather bathed in the healing liquor which drips from the tomb of Saint Catherine of Alexandria ?  Is it perhaps like George Jetson’s suitcase, and folds out into a car?  I’d pay fifteen grand to never have to park again, but anything less…

Apparently crabby thirteen-year-olds shop at Prada

Now, I don’t dislike fashion.  I quite enjoy looking at interesting clothes, studying costume history, making costumes, looking at shop windows, get excited over a particularly rich fabric or elegant coat tail, and I do pay serious attention to how I myself dress.  Fashion is a form of communication.  That’s how I primarily think of it: a social tool whose vocabulary of gender, class, situational, ethnic, geographic and subcultural cues let people communicate to others a kind of instant introduction and self-presentation.

 

Sullen vampire faeries shop at Cavalli

When a dolphin meets another dolphin the first thing they do is urinate at each other, because by tasting each other’s urine in the water they can tell a lot about each other: age, gender, health, “Hello, I’m a juvenile female who just pigged out after a long journey without enough food.”  “Well, hello, I’m a middle-aged female local to this area and in heat; get stuffed.”  Clothing accomplishes the same, in balance with function, comfort and expense, of course.  On a bus or subway one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know a lot about what class and type of professional or hobbyist most people are trying to seem.  I have a great respect for people who manage to use clothing to present themselves in ways which make them seem exciting and also give a good sense of who they are, and I strive to do so myself, and, in my case, maintain several different wardrobes (nerd, professional, historical, otaku) for presenting myself when I hop from hat to hat among my many spheres.

This fashion succeeds in communicating: if you want to present as an Icy Big Boss Lady and bully action heroes, shop here.

Like language, clothing as communication requires one to work within a set vocabulary.  As an astute economics textbook I read on the matter once pointed out, it might be that to some person encasing herself in a two-foot-diameter aluminum tube perfectly summarized her thoughts about herself, but if she walked to a room like that no one would be able to interpret it, so it would fail as communication.  Tweed jacket with leather elbow pads = professor, black with spikes = punk with all its countercultural associations; you can’t reverse or change that until the whole culture does, or no one will know what you mean.

This outfit succeeds in communicating: wealthy, fashionable

But the fashion industry is something different: it changes constantly, every season, and it’s in its very changeability that it somehow communicates.  Bowtie = quirky/geeky/old-fashioned; wearing the latest fancy thing that’s currently in shop windows, whatever that may be = fashionista.  Thousand dollar purses do have a function, which is to communicate that this is a person of sufficient wealth and education and with the proper tastes to want one.

Returning to the familiar ground of the Renaissance, a blue garment or a lady with pearls woven through her hair is a declaration to passers-by of social class, and important for enabling the correct interaction between classes, and for making political and economic contacts and alliances.  When Alessandra Strozzi writes in her letters of having a daughter married wearing hundreds of florins worth of pearls sewn to her garment, the wedding procession was an invaluable advertisement of the family’s wealth and status and its connection to its neighbors, which played a significant role in the political interplay between Strozzi, Medici and other rival powerful families in the city.  This has a function, and even a wedding dress that cost as much as a house did have a function, and I respect that.

Here a wedding procession through downtown Florence is depicted on the Adimari Cassone (c. 1450). A cassone is a wooden chest, usually used to hold clothing, and they were often decorated with wedding images and carried in the wedding procession; another way to display the wealth of clothing involved in the alliance of great houses. You can see the Baptistery and Florentine trumpeters on the left.

I can respect these shoes. They make their owner seem like an interesting person.

I understand these shoes; they tell me a wealthy woman is going to an important, formal event.

The problem comes in contemporary fashion from the fact that now one often has to be such a fashion-conscious person in order to interpret correctly, because to the untrained eye this year’s black Gucci purse looks exactly like last year’s black Gucci purse.  It’s a private dialect spoken only among a specific type of wealthy, trend-minded elite.

 

This season’s trends prove precisely why the private dialect of high fashion baffles me where other regions of fashion seem reasonable and, indeed, fun.  This season’s “look”, as one can’t help but notice on a stroll past Florence’s boutique windows, focuses on huge, rough, bulky, shaggy knitwear, mostly in brown, beige, gray or black, with accents in orange and teal.

Huge, shaggy knitwear of precisely the style that knitting hobbyists–a slice of society associated with old-fashioned handicrafts, tradition, nerd culture, and the shy prim crafts-doing girl type–produces.  There is no way that I can perceive to tell the difference between these 300 euro Ralph Lauren shawls and scarves and something one might request from a grandmother, or see growing longer panel by panel at a con.

This tells me that the wearer is cold and slobby, not trendy and rich!

Spot the Saint! The John the Baptist Hairshirt Look is in this season.

It really is the John the Baptist Hairshirt Look!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The John the Baptist winterwear ensemble

The John the Baptist Hairshirt Purse, available in camel, avocado and hypercosmic cherry

Hairshirt Shoes complete the ensemble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Communication has failed.  Generally speaking,the presumed goal of a fashionable trendy dresser is to communicate to the layman that they’re generically nicely dressed and upper class or upper middle class, while to communicate to the expert that they’re savvy enough to know that boutique X rather than boutique Y is the correct space to spend a few hundred on sunglasses in 2011.  This season’s fashion accomplishes B but fails at A, since passing such an outfit in the street, my first thought would be “oh, that person knits or knows someone who does,” not, “ah, that person is a fashionable dresser.”  The vocabulary of fashion has left communication behind.  The dialect is now incomprehensible to the bulk of the country.

As for the extreme edges of fashion, and fashion advertising, which too often leaves you uncertain even what they’re selling, there one can only revel as in surrealist art.  Here are two choice specimens from the Milan train station billboards.  What am I supposed to want to buy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 162011
 

I am comforted by the fact that the official website doesn't have good photos either.

I mentioned a few weeks ago a busy week including a Joust.  The Joust in question was the Giostra della Stella (Joust of the Star), is held in Bagno a Ripoli, formerly its own town, now legally a Florentine suburb.  When it was annexed (20th century) in order to maintain civic identity it started having a reconstructed joust every autumn.  This is not a tourist event–indeed it is hard to reach by any means, and nearly 100% of the audience were locals–but a civic pride event, and competition.

The town of Bagno a Ripoli is divided into four historic quarters, the quarters of the Mill, the Horse, the Tower and the Standard-Bearer, each with its own crest and coat of arms, and horseman.  The four competitors, professionals brought in from out of town, joust for the honor of the four quarters, to loud and enthusiasm from the spectators.  Shields and pennants bearing the quarters’ arms decorate the field and street, and the townsfolk dress in t-shirts and colors to designate their sides.

The Team of the Horse gets my "biggest flag" award

The joust is held at night, in the dark, hence the lack of good photos.  One reason for the darkness is the temperature and blazing sun, but the other is that the afternoon is reserved for a different contest: an old-fashioned sports day competition between the quarters’ teams.

This I do have photos of, as the warring quarters compete at tug-of-war, sack races, a race with an egg balanced on a spoon, and, on the nearby roadside, running while pushing a wooden hoop along with a stick, and running while pushing a partner on a wooden cart.  The tug-of-war was by far the most dramatic competition, with much preparation and debate and measuring to the inch where each starting foot is placed, while each actual competition lasted only a few seconds before one side fell, grumbling, in the dust.

The Tower team, best use of cardboard

The Mill team, content after the cart race

 

Junior flag-tossers enter the field
I wish we did this in MY middle school

 

The flag tossers were also extraordinary, with an exhibition by the junior trainee flag tossing team, and a stunning performance by the adult team with double flags, one in each hand, which were tossed and spun in mesmerizing close-quarters patterns and tossed from person to person in complex, interwoven dances.

 

One participant enjoys a panino before the procession

I have no decent photos of the joust itself because this is a night joust, held by electric light in a charming field well after dinner, so crowds can enjoy the late summer outdoors without baking in the sun.  I can only describe, therefore, the stunning costume pageant which precedes it, in which at least a hundred participants in perfect sixteenth century costume parade along the street to take their seats in the reserved stands.  The thoroughness and variety of the costuming puts most Florentine pageants to shame.  Musicians in the town livery began the parade, and the town militia, and the Podesta of the town with his ministers following behind the city standard.  Monks and an abbot joined them, touch-bearers, peasants with baskets of harvest foods, and a portable maypole which skilled children circled even as they processed.  There were noble representatives of specific grand houses of Florence and its allies too, each group including lord, lady, clients, servants, even children in tiny doublets or toddlers’ bodices, all led by a standard bearer with the family crest, so a sharp eye might pick out a Strozzi and a Medici among the crowd.  The detail was exquisite, from the strings of pearls woven through the ladies’ hair to the heavy texture of the gentlemen’s trailing sleeves. Many of the lords’ and ladies’ costumes were recreations from specific portraits, and even the gems embroidered onto layered pleats were executed to perfection.  To perfect the display of civic pride, the part of the Podesta, in his long velvet, was played by the actual top official of the town, and several other leading magistrates participated as his entourage.

One of my less bad photos; here you can see the maypole, and the monks

The Joust itself was a style I had never managed to see before myself.  I am, of course, serious about watching jousts, both from attending numerous Renn Fests and from calling Maryland home, whose state sport is still jousting (though in 2004, despite the noble efforts of many, this noble remnant of grander days was perniciously adulterated by the election of lacrosse as the state “team sport”).  I may not be so elite a jousting snob as I am a gelato snob, but I am picky, and this was excellent.

The primary banners that follow the Podesta into the grand arena are those of the city of Bagno a Ripoli, of the allied City of Florence, and of the Guelph party

The “star joust” uses small, light horses, trained for speed, who race full tilt around a small looped race course while the rider attempts to capture a metal star with a hole in the center using–not a lance–but a sword.  The rider must make two loops in 30 seconds, making one attempt at a star each time, receiving points for each star captured, and in case of a tie in points, speed is the tie-breaker.  Three rounds of increasing difficulty are held, using stars with smaller and smaller center holes, and the later stars give more points.  So trained for speed are these slim horses that, unlike the heavy, docile animals used at American fairgrounds, these were spirited to the point of disobedience, balking from unfamiliar objects, bursting into short jolts of speed without instruction, and one knight needed five attempts to get the beast to take him close enough to his lady to receive her favor.

The display of athleticism, on the part of horse and rider, was gorgeous, and in the electric light the smooth backs and haunches of the horses rippled and shimmered like silk, especially on the pale gray one that looked like polished pewter.  One could see through the thin fur and taut skin the motion of the muscles, and, since the horses went one-by-one, the gallop was all startlingly quiet, not the thunder of hooves one generally hears with many horses racing, but a light percussion, barely audible except when the horse passed close.

The crowd during the athletic festival - very vocal, very local

Equally fascinating was the cheering, or rather the booing, of the crowd.  The math will tell you why.  In a town divided into four quarters with one rider representing each, three quarters of the audience are disappointed whenever one rider does well.  Thus, the booing will always be as loud if not much louder than the cheering, and however much praise may rain down from sympathetic slopes, the capture of a star always solicits a general moan.  Given the usual adrenalizing effect cheers have on an athlete, I do wonder what chill a string of gasps and curses instills.  This was ever so much more true of the rider in red and white representing the quarter of the Standard-Bearer, because, (as a kindly old local rumormonger explained) due to one of those sorts of dramatic falling out incidents that often destroys a school club or bowling team, that quarter did not have a team in the earlier day’s athletic contests, and had no team spirit.  Thus, when that rider succeeded, everyone, the whole crowd, booed, or condescended to recognize his skill with a spattering of disjointed, grudging applause.  In fact, it was this lest popular horseman who triumphed that evening, to the general satisfaction of… me?  No one else?  The rider cast in that role was, in fact, the most experienced, and this was his eighth victory at this particular joust, though a different rider was riding the horse which (with a different man on his back) won last year.

Victory in the athletic contest is also announced at the finale of the joust. This year it was the Mill team. Motto: "We grind all year, and today we'll grind you!"

A true shadow, which very nearly thwarted the joust entirely, fell across the camp mid-way through, and incited a half hour of eerily legend-like suspense.  The sword broke.  Mid-way through, it got dinged or bent or something, and the announcer in his grand robes declared a halt.  Men in colorful livery scattered across the grounds checking equipment.  They didn’t have a spare.  There was only the one sword, and without it the jousters milled aimless in the courtyard, their horses becoming increasingly touchy and obstreperous as they milled the hedged waiting box.  It was at this point that it occurred to me that we were at a joust, and somebody lost the sword, and squires were off looking for one, and while Italy seemed an unlikely place for a boy to suddenly become King of England, this was still quite the circumstance.  In the end they turned to the costumed crowd, and asked all the gentlemen, the Medici, the Strozzi, the knights and guardsmen, to all bring their swords to the front so the officiators could select the one most physically similar to the lost official version.  Thus we confirm that it is vital for half the crowd to come to any joust in costume.  The sword replaced, the joust concluded with the victory of the very excellent knight-whom-no-one-liked, and fireworks.  And a long, awkward attempt to get a taxi home at midnight.

Fake Centurions II

 Posted by on August 24, 2011  Rome  No Responses »
Aug 242011
 

I have returned from a jaunt to Rome, and with great stealth and industry obtained this footage of the rare beast in its natural habitat.

The most common species inhabits the blocks around the Colosseum, but this specimen I sighted outside the Pantheon.  Here he is at the end of his pattern, acquiring a tip from the two ladies he had just snapped some shots with. The armor may be plastic but even from a medium distance the effect of the un-tapered draped cloak and the full-feathered crest is quite complete.

For all that the news reports about extortion around the margins of the occupation are certainly true, they do add an air of classical enthusiasm to the ancient sites.  Watching the endless repetitions of friends and families eagerly snapping badly-framed and back-lit or overexposed vacation snaps in front of one world landmark or another, I can’t help feeling that the sort of person who enjoys that kind of photo is precisely the sort of person who would enjoy it more with a burly recreationist perfecting the fantasy.  It isn’t worth 30 euros or the loss of a camera, but it is a public service of a kind, or a world service perhaps.

The fake tiaras on the other hand, there I don’t know what they’re thinking.

There is, of course, also a lighter (and for once well-organized) side to the Italian historical reenactment scene.  Here Duke Cosimo I de Medici deigns to oversee a field trip for a group of students from a peripheral public school, who have come to the Palazzo Vecchio to learn about Florence’s history.  He demanded that the teacher explain why her wards were so inappropriately dressed, and what they hoped to gain from their visit.  He interviewed a few personally and commanded that they be industrious in their studies so as to be worthy successors to Florence’s intellectual tradition.  He was particularly impressed with the class president and her art studies, and encouraged her to seek service with his Republic when her studies were complete.  He then gave the class permission to sketch some of the decoration his man Vasari had recently finished.  I know I never had a field trip that made me feel so connected to something so important.  Fact is: they are.

Real Fake Centurions

 Posted by on August 14, 2011  Rome  No Responses »
Aug 142011
 

The Roman Forum. Don't you wish there was a guy in plastic armor standing in front of this photo?

There has just been a crackdown, reported in this article, on the “fake centurions” in Rome, who stand around in classical armor outside the Colosseum or Pantheon or Forum or, perplexingly, St. Peter’s, and ask for tips from tourists in return for posing for photos.  Sometimes they claim to be pseudo-gladiators rather than centurions, and one also spots among them the occasional emperor, always tolerably costumed in that combination of leather, metal, plastic and cheap embroidery which would be a praise-worthy costume at a fancy-dress party but embarrassing in a film.

Why does this justify a crackdown?  As the article explains, these faux legionaries are fiercely demanding, extending to extortion, often letting you take a photograph and afterwards demanding ten or twenty euros, and it is not so easy to walk away.

Your memories of the Colosseum, now with 75% less extortion.

It is intimidating, plastic sword or no, to have a burly man in armor edge toward you while loudly demanding money, especially in an unfamiliar place where confusion and the language barrier mean that help is not intuitively obtained.  The article cites worse cases, where one might take a tourist’s camera and demand cash for its return, or offer genuine violence, particularly when their beats are threatened.  In this article, the actual arrest came when two under-cover officers dressed as centurions themselves and attempted to join the band by the Colosseum, only to be threatened and, eventually, attacked by the established centurions who would not allow newcomers to edge in on their ancient turf.

What struck me about the article, apart from the stereotypically Italian anecdote that an old promise by the government to begin licensing said centurions was followed by many years of complete inertia, was how often the journalist repeated variations on “fake centurion” or “phony gladiator”, as if, separate from the extortion, there is public outrage at the falseness of these impostors.

Maybe the fake centurions should pose by the fake Colosseum in the Museum of Roman Civilization?

Is there some corps of real centurions edged out of work by the ersatz legionaries?  Has the legitimate gladiators’ union filed suit?  Is the government licensing supposed to somehow guarantee that only real ancient Romans stand around outside the monuments to have their photos taken?

On further consideration, it is true that extortion on the part of someone in a legionary uniform does rather besmirch the honor of the patria.  Perhaps some sort of test is in order for the license, to prove that the spirit of the legions lives in the applicant’s heart.  How shall we do it?  Rustle up some Gauls or Dacians and have them storm the Palatine?  Introduce a lion into the Colosseum?  Have one of the costumed emperors command one of the costumed guards to leap into the Tiber?

Perhaps a group exam? Give them ten days to build a bridge across the Rhine? Julius' men did it.

There’s still some falseness to these methods, though, staged tests.  Eventually the solution dawned.  Each applicant should be issued with a provisional license and allowed to begin work.  Then in the first week on the job, the licensers bring a standard of said legionary’s legion, complete with banner and glittering plastic eagle, and hand it to some nearby teenagers with no particular instructions.  The sight of the standard being leaned on casually, set down in the dust, swung around, and generally played with, will instantly separate the inertia of the “fake centurion” from the righteous rage of the true.  Perhaps, for safety in the latter case, the teens should also be issued with some kind of padded armor.