Say the word ‘carnival’ and people usually think of the colourful extravaganzas of Brazil or Venice, but the period leading up to the beginning of lent is celebrated across the world, including the Czech Republic. Here it’s known as “masopust”, which means pretty much the same thing as the Italian “carnevale” – i.e. to refrain from eating meat. Masopust is mostly celebrated in Moravia, but a husband and wife team is trying to resurrect the lavish Prague carnival that was the social event of the year in centuries gone by.
Stage designer and carnival director Zlatuše Müller shows me some of the exquisite handmade masks being made ready for this year’s carnival. She and her husband Rostislav have gone to extraordinary lengths over the last few years to resurrect the decadent festivities that were once the highlight of the Bohemian social calendar, spending hours carrying out meticulous research.
“We have notes that Amadeus Mozart and Casanova danced in masks like this one at the masked ball in Prague.”
“Mozart used to wear a gold mask, and Casanova used to wear one made out of black velvet. Casanova was already an old man – Mozart was just twenty-five.”
The roots of the Bohemian carnevale – Zlatuše prefers the Italian term to the Czech ‘masopust’ or English ‘carnival’ – go back to the late 13th century, although the carnival reached its peak during the Renaissance. The festivities in 1570 were breathtakingly lavish; the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo built a huge papier-mâché model of Mount Etna on the Old Town Square, erupting in a volcano of fireworks before disgorging a procession of presumably terrified animals and aristocrats dressed as mythological figures. Rostislav Müller, an architect and designer, told me more about Arcimboldo’s career.
“The Arcimboldo period is really nice. He was here in Prague for thirty years, and thirty years in Turin, in Italy. He was young, and the emperor wanted Arcimboldo to come to Prague. For thirty years he worked in all the creative projects in Prague for the emperor’s court.”
Last year saw a group of Sardinian carnival artists – dressed in allegorical costumes that have remained unchanged for centuries - parade through the Old Town. It’s a far cry from volcanoes erupting in the centre of Prague, but as Zlatuše Müller explained, it’s still a welcome dash of colour and decadence in the final cold, grey months of winter before the advent of spring.
“February is such a terrible time in Prague, that you can hardly survive it. It’s cold and grey, so it’s a good background for colour. This is the only way to survive staying in Prague – to hold nice parties, to have a carnevale like they used to have. You can survive because in the period of carnevale you can do everything you want. You can be someone else, because after Fat Tuesday comes Ash Wednesday, and Ash Wednesday will lead you to the forty days of Lent, and finally the springtime will arrive.”
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