Venetian masks could unleash the hidden desires and passions of their wearers, could protect a scandalous identity, or could aid the once paranoid state of Venice in prohibiting nepotism. A vital tool for all of the Serenissima’s population, the mask is a potent symbol of the most decadent, excessive and secretive sides of the Republic.
In modern Venice the mask is the giddy delight of children dressed as Spiderman or a Frozen tribute, or the hauty disguise of Carnival veterans who vye with other stiffly brocaded couples to be the photograph used in the newspaper the next day. But Carnival and its masks had much darker beginnings of gambling, forbidden pleasures and, perhaps a surprise to modern Carnivals goers, fear.
The Carnival of Venice traditionally announces the beginning of Lent, a period of sobriety, frugality and abstinence. The term ‘carnevale’, in Italian, derives from the Latin carnem levare, meaning to eliminate meat. Carnival, therefore, came about as the last chance to revel in the cornucopia of culinary, cultural and illicit luxuries of the ‘Serenissima’ city.
Masking for Freedom: The Arlecchino
Masking for anonymity in order to be released from social restrictions was common long before Carnival. In 1268 there is evidence of a law making it illegal to wear a mask and throw eggs. Presumably it was also illegal to wear a mask and commit other slightly more serious crimes. In the early Renaissance it was common to find troupes of actors taking advantage of masks to perform adults-only comedies.
By 18th century masking was an everyday activity, when going to a bar, when going to the theatre, when nobles greeted foreign visitors, when girls met their fiance for a stroll. And of course, when doing something you shouldn’t. A disguise allowed for morality and rules to be pushed aside in favour of pleasure or criminality. Prostitution, theiving, gambling and blackmail were common pusuits of the masked.
Harlequin is now considered a comedic scallywag, mischeivious but ultimately harmless. But his origins were not so innocent. A character from the Italian commedia dell’arte, he could be offensive, sly, and crude, and was generally driven by his belly or lower. Indeed, before becoming comedic, he was a demon from the underworld. His mask is of black wood or leather, and decidedly ugly with a protrusion on the forehead signifying a devil’s horn. This is the mask to wear when engaging in less than honest activities.
Masking for Liberation: The Colombina
During Carnival Venetian masks allowed the varying social classes to throw off the expected behaviour or assumptions of their status. Identities were fluid. Noble woman could gamble alongside prostitutes, while the poor could mimick their masters. In this way, the mask was a method of liberation from societal constraints.
The Colombina is a half mask richly decorated with jewellery and feathers. It also originates from the Commedia dell’arte. The character of Colombina traditionally wore ragged clothes to signify her status as a servant. Thus the poor could disguise themselves as rich, and even vice versa.
Masking for Political Anonymity: The Bauta
The Venetian state was in perpetual terror of dictatorship, of an individual seizing power for himself. The process to elect a Doge was tortuous, involving at least 5 different votes by various groups of the Great Council, consisting of aristocrats. This eliminated any possibility of nepotism within governing power. In fact, the Doge himself, for all his finery and majesty, had very little control. He was a kind of gilded puppet for the Councils of the state.
During political decision making a particular mask called the Bauta was required to ensure complete anonymity and secrecy. The Bauta is made of white cloth, covers the whole face, and has no mouth. It has a squarish form with a wide chin which allows the wearer to eat or drink without removing his mask. Technically the Bauta refers to a whole costume, including a black tricorn hat, a veil and a mantle worn over the shoulders. Given that only men were permitted to vote on political matters, this costume is traditionally worn by men at Carnival.
Note: If you do choose to don this costume, be aware that the bearing of weapons along with the mask was specifically prohibited by law and enforceable by the Venetian police. Plastic swords may be accepted though.
Masking for Macabre: The Medico della Peste and the Larva
The Disney costumes of bright synthetic fabrics and plastic accessories do, it has to be admitted, jarr painfully with the mouldy, decaying beauty of the mysterious Serenissima. Venetians were always morbidly fascinated by death and decay, by the dark and elusive. Carnival may seem like a bright and joyous festival now, but pre-Napoleon it was shrouded in secrecy and dangerous excess. So what better costume to wear that one which evokes the most macabre figure of all, the Medico della peste (the Plague Doctor).
This mask originated in 17th century France, where is was adopted by a physician, Charles de Lorme, as a sanitary precaution when treating plague victims. The mask has a long hollow beak which was stuffed with herbs and flowers intended to keep at bay the foul odors thought to spread infection. Plague doctors also wore a black coat and white gloves. The most common form of the mask also features round eye-holes with black painted spectacles. This is certainly the mask to wear if you want to be a little subversive at Carnival.
Perhaps of even more gruesome origins is the Volto or Larva mask, larva being a term used in Ancient Rome to desribe souls of the dead come back to haunt the living. Indeed the Larva mask is often stark white, covering the whole face and chin and marked with simple facial features.
Masking for Spying
With crime and carousing rife in Venice, it is no surprise that the paranoid, power hungry state exploited masks for secret surveillance. In bars and gambling halls masked men would attempt to eavesdrop on important conversations. Ironically, however, with such an abundance of hidden identities due to masking, it seems the surveillance crews were not often successful in exposing criminals.
Johnson, James H. Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic
Addison, Joseph. Remarks on several parts of Italy, &c. in the years 1701, 1702, 1703
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