Even today, the mask is an image that evokes the celebratory nature of Venice. Throughout the unique history of the city, masks have provided opportunities to indulge in pageantry, extravagance, and revelry.
One of the most well-known aspects of Venetian culture is Carnival: a festival devoted to celebration, where individuals partake in decadent activity while hidden behind a mask. Masks make it possible for people to exhibit sumptuous and decadent behavior that may otherwise not be acceptable. Carnival celebrations originated in 1162 to mark a victorious battle, and quickly became an annual event. This city-wide party reached its height in the 18th century, encouraging pleasure, indulgence, and perhaps even illicit activity in disguise for multiple months of the year. Eventually, Carnival was limited to the time between Christmas and the more somber Lenten period. Though it was outlawed with the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the Italian government revived the old tradition in 1979. To this day, the modern Carnival remains a festivity that draws locals as well as international tourists who want to experience the famed merriment.
In addition to their place in Carnival traditions, masks have been linked to Venetian society throughout history. In the Venetian Republic, wearing masks made it possible for all citizens to remain on an equal playing field, important for both economic and social reasons. Behind masked faces, individual voices were prioritized. This concealment of identity was eventually abused, as disguises allowed for unrefined behavior without fear of ramifications. Venetian courtesan culture, combined with increased hedonistic activity, led to extreme promiscuity and decadence. This state of luxury eventually became too much, and wearing masks became limited to only certain months of the year.
The most notable masks are largely divided into two categories: those that stem from the commedia dell’arte form of theater, and those more generally associated with Carnival.
Commedia dell’arte, a form of professional theater originating in the 16th century, is an improvisational art where characters represent fixed social types, or stock characters, each with their own detailed costume and physical traits. These masks were primarily functional, but throughout time became more elaborate in design and ornate in decoration. Masked commedia dell’arte characters fall into three large categories: zanni (“comic servants”), capitani (“captains”), and vecchi (“old men”). The adventurous and boasting Scaramouche represents the captain, while Dottore and Pantalone are wealthy and pompous old men. The comic servants, all known to be silly and simple minded, range from the light-hearted Arlecchino to the melancholic Pierrot, the clever Brighella to the ignorant Pulcinella.
Though certain commedia dell’arte masks are occasionally worn in modern Carnival celebrations, other masks are more traditionally associated with the festival itself. The most traditional are the Bauta, with a protruding mouth portion so you can eat without removing it, and the Volto, covering the face more closely. Certain styles are reserved for women, including the Moretta, which was historically thought to make a woman more beautiful by concealing her identity behind a circular black velvet mask with wide eyes and no lips. The Colombina and the Dama add to feminine beauty rather than disguising it, both known for their exquisite jewels and feathers. Other masks are tied to different pieces of Venetian culture: The Gatto represents a cat, an animal notable for its legendary status in Venice, whereas the Medico della peste is thought to stem from the Black Plague of the 17th century (originally worn by doctors as a sanitary precaution). The most emblematic of today’s Venetian Carnival is likely the Jester, a clown from the Middle Ages.
Learn more about La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Rebublic.