The Penny Illustrated Paper and its many readers surely loved carnivals. As long as they were civilized, that is. International festivals, like the very exotic “Havannah” carnival were like a breath of fresh air for both colonized and colonizers, but, for the European – namely English – observers, these types of festivals were nothing more than slightly odd occurrences. Even if the festivities were held far away from Old Europe, the carnivalesque utopian ideal of temporary freedom and equality was nevertheless respected, that is, the “Havannah” carnival was “one day of noisy liberty given to these negroes” (issue 14, 11 Jan. 1862, p. 28) Of course, Victorians did not approve of this burst of primitive and instinctual behaviour, seeing this carnival as a return to the caveman’s world.
What is more shocking, is that people participating to the carnival “dress themselves in their national and every kind of fantastic costume,” which is then followed by “grotesque music and wild antics.” All in all, the British viewer perceives something impossible to express clearly, the kind of image Mr. Spock would label as illogical. In other words, what the outside – superior – observer sees, is a “tableau that can be but faintly rendered by the pencil” (issue 14, 11 Jan. 1862, p. 28), a city turned into a “confused, horrid din” (issue 14, 11 Jan. 1862, p. 28), as if “Havannah” hosted a sort of maniacs international convention.
On the other hand, in a parallel universe, in Europe people not only know how to behave, but they can also celebrate properly. On the opposite pole of the far-away place where the white and wise would sadly descend to the level of their slaves and servants, the carnivals in Rome represent the apex of popular refinement. They are the aristocrats, the descendants of Caesar or Virgil. Italy, along with Greece and other countries with a warm sea-side feeling are the favourite holiday destination for all Victorians, especially for the very Victorian honeymoons and other tourist occasions. In the “eternal city,” gaiety is the name of the game:
The palaces are thrown open by their owners to the privileged classes, foreign and indigenous; theatres of all grades, from the Apollo to the Piazza Navona, are crowded by their respective habitués; and British and American visitors are flocking to each other’s dinner parties, tea fights, or state balls. (issue 19, 15 Feb. 1862, p. 100)
Another star on the European carnival stage, following the Roman holiday, is the Mardi Gras , or the Shrove Tuesday as the neighbours across the channel call it. Dancing, balls, masquerades, promenades to Longchamps are amongst the main occupations of both children and adults, and, while they do that, after “the cavalcade of the boeuf gras with as much zest as if they had nothing else to think about” (issue 23, 15 Mar. 1862, p. 169). Of course, the chaos met on other – peculiar – continents is nowhere to be seen. The authorities would go to great length to prevent any disturbance, mainly in the much feared and unstable marketplace. In any case, most such festivities went smoothly, offering “no other distraction to the blouses and bourgeoisie than a gaudily-dressed cavalcade of Chinese mandarins on horseback” (issue 23, 15 Mar. 1862, p.169), of course all exotic elements were only masks worn by very dignified properly educated Europeans. Everything was about the display of colour, not indulging into it:
The supposed inhabitants of the Celestial Empire, as well as the Druids and club-bearing guild of butchers, were soldiers so disguised. In addition to the mythological characters on the Olympian and flower-enwreathed car was a white ram with a fleece upon which was expanded all the skill of a Paris perruquier, and which bore the marks of the curling-tongs and crisping irons. (issue 23, 15 Mar. 1862, p.169)
In any case, the carnival was turned into a parade. The crowds would watch fantastic images passing by; they would definitely not vociferate or dance frenetically as they would have done a couple of centuries earlier. Displays were only displays, they looked exotic, but, at the same time, they behaved according to the aristocratic norms. Even goddesses dressed in ball gowns or “half-naked Cupids” (issue 23, 15 Mar. 1862, p.169) passing by kept their composure while smiling and waving.