Venice is very famous for its masks and they have played a very important role in the history and cultural heritage of the city. Venetian Masks are the hallmark of the Venice Carnival. You cannot mention Venice Carnival without talking about the famous marks.
For two weeks every year Venice transforms into a runway that features an endless parade of gorgeous 18th century masks and costumes. Wearing masks is a tradition that is as old as the Venice Carnival itself.
Venetian masks are recognised by their intricate design, baroque style decorations and feature bright colors or gold and silver. For centuries the masks were papier-mache and decorated with fur, gems, crystals and feathers.
Why do people wear masks at Venice Carnival?
Why do people wear masks to Venice Carnival? Venice Carnival reinterpreted ancient Roman and Greek festivals that saw people dress in masks and costumes to hide differences in social class. With a mask and a hooded cape, you couldn’t tell if you were chatting with a noble man or not.
Venetian Carnival masks also provided anonymity for a few weeks. By becoming anonymous citizens, you were allowed to indulge in some debauchery. They could gamble freely, or a married person could indulge in some hanky-panky without getting caught.
History Of Venetian Masks
What is the origin of Venetian masks? Venetian masks have a long history of protecting their wearer’s identity so they can engage in decadent and promiscuous activities. It is not known exactly when Venetians began to wear masks in public, many historians attribute the origin of masquerade celebrations to festivities surrounding the Venetian Republic’s conquest of lands in eastern Mediterranean.
The earliest account of the Venetians mask was in a law of 1268 which forbade masked people from playing certain games. Another 13th century law prohibited masked people from gambling and in 1339, masked people were outlawed from visiting convents. From these medieval accounts, we learn that masks were associated with Venetian Carnival.
Venice enjoyed a high standard of living compared to their European counterparts. With a level of social wealth unequaled since, the Venetians developed a unique culture of concealing identity in daily life. Much of the secrecy was pragmatic, there were people to see, things to do, and maybe you didn’t want others to know what deals you were cutting. After all, it was a small city.
Additionally, wearing masks served an important social purpose of keeping every citizen on an equal playing field. A servant could be a nobleman and vice versa, with no faces, everyone had a voice. Of course, concealment of identity naturally saw people take advantage of the situation.
Sexual promiscuity was commonplace and acceptable. Gambling was rampant and women’s clothing became more revealing. Homosexuality which was publicly condemned was embraced by the populace. Even the monks and nuns engaged in the same acts as their fellow citizens. Rome turned a blind eye, so long as the Republic made generous donations to them.
You might be interested: Your Ultimate Guide to Venice Carnival
When Did Venetians Wear Masks?
Venetians did not wear masks all-year-round, there was in fact a time-limit on when they were allowed to wear them. Under the laws of the Republic, Venetians were allowed to wear masks between St Stephen’s Day (December the 26th) and the end of the carnival, which always officially ends at midnight on Shrove Tuesday. Venetians were also allowed to wear masks on Ascension.
The Republic fell into a state of moral decay and eventually mask wearing was banned and limited only to a few months a year; it was a total of three months a year during the republic’s final year. After the 1100s, the masquerade went through periods of being outlawed by the Catholic Church, particularly on holy days. The modern celebration of Venetian Carnival has reinvigorated the art and craft of making Venetian masks.
Related Reading: Venice Carnival Costumes
What are Venetian Masks Made From?
All traditional Venetian masks are still made from paper mâché and then elaborately decorated with fur, fabric, gems, or feathers. The masks that are used in theatrical productions like the Arlecchino mask are still made from leather. On the other hand, in Venice you will find a lot of cheap knock off masks imported from China. The genuine Venice Masks are all made by local artisans using traditional materials and techniques.
The different types of Venetian Masks
In general, all Venetian masks may be classified under these major groups:
White masks are simple and unassuming masks which semi-accurately represent a normal person’s face. They have reasonably natural features and little variation across the different designs. These masks allowed the wearer to move around Venice, unrecognized.
There were specific masks that were only worn during carnival. These masks were worn for the similar reasons as the white masks, but were much more decorative and colorful, to mark the special occasion. Venice Carnival was always a huge party and the colorful Venetian Carnival masks reflected the city’s fondness for revelry. Even though Venetians wore masks at various times per year, many more would join in and wear masks during carnival. Masks ensured Venetians were able to live more liberated, freer lives than other Europeans.
Commedia dell’arte Masks
Commedia dell’arte masks, on the other hand, were clearly used to classify different characters in theater performances. Commedia dell’arte was a form of improvisational theater popular in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries.
You can purchase Commedia dell’arte Masks here.
Types of Carnival Masks
Bauta is famous in the Venice Carnival as it is one of the main types of masks that is worn during carnival. It is a simple, white mask with square jawlines which projects out over the mouth. This allows the wearer to drink and eat and has the added effect of distorting the wearer’s voice.
It is part of a whole costume, which is worn with a cape and a tricorn hat, that totally hides the wearer’s identity, meaning that women could enter male dominated places and that the poor were allowed to mix with the noble. In fact it was considered the ideal disguise by Royal members who could move freely in the city without being recognised.
In the 18th century, it was actually the standardized mask for political decision-making events, to ensure that anonymity was guaranteed when participating in ballots. The name Bauta doesn’t have a definitive interpretation.
The Plague Doctor or Medico della peste
This is a modern Venice Carnival mask with a unique history. One of the worst scourges for the city of Venice was without a doubt the Plague, which ravaged Venice on many occasions. This strange mask was used by actual doctors as a sanitary precaution when visiting people afflicted with the plague.
The mask had a long nose/beak which would hold herbs and flowers that were used to filter out the air and cover up the horrible smells of plague victims. It included crystal eyes to protect the wearer’s eyes, a wooden stick to push away plague victims that got too close, leather gloves to protect the hands, a hat to show that the man was in fact a doctor, a gown waxed from the exterior and full-length booths. They hoped these precautions prevented them from the disease.
Today the mask is a little more decorative. The popularity of this mask is very apparent at Venice Carnival and those who wear the mask often wear the associated clothing of the beak doctor.
This is a traditional Venetian mask which is an oval shape, made of black velvet, with holes only for the eyes. It was worn by Venetian women all year round and didn’t entirely hide the wearer’s face, but it did limit social interaction in a strange way. It was held in place by the wearer biting on the button on the inside, meaning that they wouldn’t be able to speak without removing the mask. It was often worn to convents.
It was invented in France and became very popular in Venice because it accentuated the beauty of the feminine features. The mask was accompanied with a veil.
This cat mask has a fascinating story behind it. It was part of a costume worn by men who wished to disguise themselves as women – they were essentially the original drag queens of the Venetian Republic. The costume also required the wearer to carry a basket filled with kittens to mock passers-by with coarse language.
Homosexuality was of course punishable by death in those times, but this mask was part of a loophole in Venice’s laws. If you wore a mask, you had to act in accordance with the mask, which allowed men to enact heterosexual relationships with other men.
Female prostitutes saw a decline in their business due to the popularity of the Gnaghe with their client base and appealed to the bishop to counteract the appeal of the masks, Contarti allowed prostitutes to lean out of their windows with their breasts on display.
You can purchase a Gnaga Mask here.
These days this is probably one of the most popular and beautiful mask types that is seen during the Venetian Carnival. It presents many different elegant variations which correspond to the ladies of the Cinquecento (period of Titian) who covered themselves in jewels, expensive clothing and elaborate coifs.
This is a clown type mostly associated with the Middle Ages. The jester influenced all of European theater. Jesters typically wear brightly coloured clothing in a motley pattern. They have distinctive hats made of cloth, which were floppy with three points.
This means face in Italian and is also known as the Citizen mask, because it was worn by the common people during all holidays. The mask is mainly white and is worn with a tricorn and cloak. It is thought the word larva comes from the Latin meaning “mask” or “ghost”. Similar to the Bauta, the shape of the mask allowed the wearer to eat and drink without having to remove the mask. They were made of fine wax cloth and were so light and comfortable to wear it made them ideal for a night of socializing and dancing.
Commedia dell’arte Mask Types
There are lots of characters from the Commedia dell’arte but here are the most popular ones:
Colombina means “little dove” in Italian and is a comic servant character from the Commedia dell’Arte. Colombina was a servant but usually the smartest person onstage. She was dressed in a ragged and patched dress appropriate to her status.
Columbina was a half mask that was often highly decorated with silver, gold, crystals and feathers. It is held up to the face tied with a ribbon or held up by a baton.
The Arlecchino, or the harlequin, is the male counterpart of the arlecchina. He is a comic servant character from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Arlecchino traditionally wore an outfit of patches and rags, which evolved into the lozenge-shaped motley you see today.
His mask was black with a large red blemish on his forehead that was similar to a boil. It is typically a half-mask with a short nose and wide arch in the eyebrows.
This is a classical character which originated in the Commedia dell’Arte in the 17th century. The character is a poor hunchback man who is always down on his luck, often drunk and constantly getting into trouble. The mask has an extremely long beak-like nose and is typically worn with a long white coat and straggly hair.
Pantalone is a miserly old man whose mask has a large beak-like nose and heavy eyebrows. He traditionally wears a large codpiece to advertise his virility which all around him knows is long gone. He also wears a right red vest, red breeches, a black cassock, slippers, stockings and a brimless hat.
This character is a beloved character not just in Commedia dell’arte, but also in French theater. He represents the sad clown who pines for Colombina even though she will inevitably break his heart. His mask is painted white, often with a black tear and he wears a white tunic which has wide sleeves and legs.
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