lifestyle musings

The Venetian Carnival Under Egg Attack: The story of the Ovi Odoriferi

But then things began to degenerate. Some ludicrous young men started to throw these eggs from balconies using slingshots...

In my research for the last post, I came across a curiosity that made me laugh. The ovi odoriferi, or scented eggs, a curiosity of the Carnival of Venice. So I decided to write a post about them because it felt so familiar…I was quite a terrible child and one of my amusements was throwing rotten eggs out the window at random people passing by on the street below. Yes, I was a bad kid.

For my great surprise, I’ve learned that it was Marco Polo who introduced the Chinese custom of offering scented eggs in Italy, in the early 14th century, where it was named ovi odoriferi! (Which is controversial since Marco Polo’s travels are a subject of interminable discussion and many scholars say he has never been to China and all those faraway kingdoms and empires…) but this is another story, let’s go back to our smelly eggs.

The Chinese filled the eggs with perfumed powder to avoid leaking, runny eggs.

However, in Italy, the young Venetian gentlemen would take the amusing game to the next level. They filled decorated empty eggshells with rosewater, perfume, cologne or any other sweet-scented substance. And, as a token of love, they would throw these eggs in front of the houses of the girls they liked most.

Time passed and they started to throw the eggs at the ladies, instead!

I imagine a number of tragic stories of pretty girls screaming in terror, attacked by flying eggs getting straight into their eyes!

But in Medieval Venice, it was quite a craze! The ovi became really popular as a means of flirting, and soon one could find them everywhere, there were even stores specialized in these eggs. It was like sending an emoji if you were a shy boy. You could just wear a mask to hide your figure and find the girl you were interested, hoping she wasn’t wearing a mask, too.

But then things began to degenerate. Some ludicrous young men started to throw these eggs from balconies using slingshots. The victims were random now. Not that girl, but a married woman. Her husband. A dog. Anything that could move. And they would fill the eggs with unknown substances, too. Hehehehe…

Mattacino tradition venice carnoval ovi odoriferi
Trick or Treat? The Mattacini in action. Pietro Bertelli: “Mascare usate in Venetia che Tirano Ovi odoriferi” – engraving (1642)

They were spreading fear through the alleys, they became known by the name of “egg throwing masks” and they were also known as Mattaccino or Frombolatore (from frombola, meaning sling). They were one step away from full-blown delinquency.

eggs caution

Mental post-it: The Mattasin (Mattaccino in Italian – also called “frombolatore”, due to the sling they would carry around) is among the most misbehaving impersonations of the Venitian Carnival (as we already know at this point). The title stems from the Italian term mattinate (mornings), referring to those who would have fun from dawn to dusk.  The mattaccini (plural for mattaccino) wore practical and simple garments in neutral colors like beige and white and a feathered hat.  They were euphemistically described as fun, loving, irreverent.  They hunted people in packs, like Alex’s Droogs in Anthony Burgess’ novel and homonymous movie A Clockwork Orange. Their slings prepared to project eggs in space. Unsurprisingly, they were disapproved by most.

mattasin ovi odoriferi venice carnival tradition
Pietro Bertelli: “Mattasin”- engraving (1642) “Bella, se voi d’Amor mi date il fiore Vi dono due sonagli di buon core.” “Sweetheart, if you will give me the flower of love, I will give you two rattles, out of my good heart”
The situation was out of control! In 1645, the English diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706), in a visit to Venice during the Carnival, registered that he saw the “folly and madness of the Carnevale” “…the women, men, and persons of all conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses, with extravagant music and a thousand gambols, traversing the street from house to house. People fling eggs filled with sweet water at each other.
Basta!
These vicious attacks became so widespread and bothersome (to say the least) that the Venetian government decided to build nets in the San Marco Procuratie (the arcades all around the square), where the nobles used to take their daily walk, to shelter them from the malevolent flying eggs!
Later, the Great Council of Venice made it a crime for masked individuals to throw the ovi odoriferi altogether, because at that point eggs filled with ink and other harmful substances were everywhere!
Even though, this custom spread to Spain (where these eggs are called cascarones – from cascara, meaning shell), France, and Austria and eventually crossed the Atlantic.
Carlotta, the wife of Emperor Maximillian, brought the tradition to Mexico around 1864, and the country was never the same again. But, to avoid the drawbacks of the tradition, Carlotta filled the empty eggshells with confetti instead of cologne. Not in Mexico! The wise lady thought.
The cascarones are still popular today for Easter celebrations and other fiestas in Mexico and South America.  To make the egg attack more palatable and get the collaboration of the victim, the cascarones are said to bring good fortune when cracked over the head.
This is a chronicle based on real facts, that were exaggerated (for fun) 🙂
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