From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Such gatherings, festivities of Carnival, were paralleled from the fifteenth century by increasingly elaborate allegorical Entries, pageants and triumphal processions celebrating marriages and other dynastic events of late medieval court life. Masquerade balls were extended into costumed public festivities in Italy during the 16th century Renaissance (Italian, maschera). They were generally elaborate dances held for members of the upper classes, and were particularly popular in Venice. They have been associated with the tradition of the Venetian Carnival. With the fall of the Venetian Republic at the end of the 18th century, the use and tradition of masks gradually began to decline, until they disappeared altogether.
In 1979, a group of young Venetians interested in theatre and culture had the idea of reviving the Carnival in Venice. Now the visitors that crowd Venice in the last week before the beginning of the Lent reach the figure of more than 500.000 and the traditional spirit of the Carnival pervades again the city. Identities again become confused. The division between reality and illusion, between past and present, never very clearly defined in Venice at any time, indistinguishably merge.
They became popular throughout mainland Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sometimes with fatal results. Gustav III of Sweden was assassinated at a masquerade ball by disgruntled nobleman Jacob Johan Anckarström, an event which Eugène Scribe turned into the opera Gustave III.
The "Bal des Ardents" ("Burning Men's Ball") was intended as a Bal des sauvages ("Wild Men's Ball") a costumed ball (morisco). It was in celebration of the marriage of a lady-in-waiting of Charles VI of France's queen in Paris on January 28, 1393. The King and five courtiers dressed as wildmen of the woods (woodwoses), with costumes of flax and pitch. When they came too close to a torch, the dancers caught fire. (This episode may have influenced Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Hop-Frog".) Such costumed dances were a special luxury of the ducal court of Burgundy.
John James Heidegger, a Swiss count, is credited with having introduced the Venetian fashion of a semi-public masquerade ball, to which one might subscribe, to London in the early eighteenth century, with the first being held at Haymarket Opera House. Throughout the century the dances became popular, both in England and Colonial America. Its prominence did not go unchallenged; a significant anti-masquerade movement grew alongside the balls themselves. The anti-masquerade writers (among them such notables as Henry Fielding) held that the events encouraged immorality and "foreign influence". While they were sometimes able to persuade authorities to their views, enforcement of measures designed to end masquerades was at best desultory.
Masquerade balls were sometimes set as a game among the guests. The masked guests were supposedly dressed so as to be unidentifiable. This would create a type of game to see if a guest could determine each others' identities. This added a humorous effect to many masques and enabled a more enjoyable version of typical balls.
A new resurgence of Masquerade balls began in the late 1990s in North America and are still held today, though in modern times the party atmosphere is emphasized and the formal dancing usually less prominent. Less formal "costume parties" may be a descendant of this tradition.
The picturesque quality of the masquerade ball has made it a favorite topic or setting in literature. Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death" is based at a masquerade ball in which a central figure turns out to be exactly what he is costumed as. Another ball in Zurich is featured in the novel Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
"Regency" romance novels, which are typically about Britain's upper class "ton" during the 1800s, often make use of masquerade balls as settings, due both to their popularity at the time and to their endless supply of plot devices.
As mentioned before,Masquerades are the centers of multiple operas. The musical and movie The Phantom of the Opera has a very important scene in the story line take place at a masked ball. This scene (in the film) features inventive choreography and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
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