The Venetian Massara

Bartolomeo Grassi, Three Venetian Prostitutes, c. 1585, Engraving, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Lady Arundel found herself in Venice in an environment full of inspiration from the fields of art and medicine. Odoardo Fialetti in particular was, as mentioned, an important contact. His interest in the functioning of the human body and the art of drawing as a key skill for a wider audience coincided with that of Lady Arundel, whose passion for painting and drawing was borne by a broader understanding of art focusing on the human body. Venice was known as the city of colore, its artists notoriously accused by their competitors in Florence of a lack of disegno. Might Lady Arundel, the liefhebber or amateur of art, a real dilettante, have tried to reconcile these two concepts in turning to medicine, physiology and, more specifically, to the culinary arts of sustaining the body?

The multitude of Venetian works in the inventory, created in 1655 of Lady Arundel’s house in Amsterdam, shows an intensive examination of the Venetian tradition. Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Pordenone and Giorgione are among the most prominent names. At the same time, the close relationship to Fialetti, shows a distinct interest in the art of drawing as well as epistemic images, far from the well-known artistic tradition of the city. Lady Arundel’s interest in the arts might therefore rather be understood in connection with the medicinal knowledge she was able to gather, be it in the city or through her sons’ attendance of the famous Faculty of Medicine of Padua.

Christoph Krieger, after Cesare Vecellio, Venetian Noblewoman dressed for a Festival, 1598, Etching, 167 × 125 mm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

The last testimony to Lady Arundel’s specific interests in Venice gives a letter describing the preparations for her return to London. Curiously, there is no mention of Venetian glass, exotic spices or masterful works of art, which she certainly also shipped to England and for which the doge granted her tax exemption. Instead, in a letter from John Chamberlain to Dudley Carleton of July 12, 1623, there is talk of “three Italian massaras (wherof one is a blackamore) and a Gondola.”: “The countesse of Arundell is now upon her returne for she hath sent some forerunners before, three Italian massaras (wherof one is a blackamore) and a Gondola, which I doubt will not so well brooke our river, where there is commonly so much winde ”(Norman McClure (ed.), The Letters of John Chamberlain 1939).

The word massara describes a servant who is specially employed for work in the kitchen and in the household. Compared to the extravagant idea of transporting a gondola from Venice to London, the Italian kitchen helpers mentioned seem almost commonplace. Since Italian cuisine was known in Europe as the best and most refined, it signals Lady Arundel’s new familiarity with the secrets of the culinary arts of Italy, guaranteeing her a prominent culture within the festive court culture in London characterized by lavish banquets. The fact that there was also a black servant is rather telling. Black servants were an attraction and novelty particularly sought after due to their peculiarity. They rarely did simple work, but instead were trained for the most complicated and showy tasks (Catherine Molineux, Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain 2012).

Ferando Bertelli, after Enea Vico, African Widow, 1569, Engraving, 150 × 105 mm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

They were certainly no ordinary kitchen helpers but usually had special abilities, as did probably the two other mascaras Lady Arundel was able to lure to Britain. They would have helped her to produce Italian dishes, sweets, and pastries, as well as other Italian specialties like cosmetics and medicines. Venice as a place for curtisans and decorative cosmetics was an early modern commonplace, and the Countess surely was inspired by her surroundings. From the cultural center of Venice, Lady Arundel brought art to the English court that was not limited to canvases, a lavish Italian lifestyle.

Johann Theodor de Bry after Hendrick Goltzius, The Venetian Ball, before 1623, Engraving,  166 × 169 mm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


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