Last Updated on 2022/01/11
The Carnival and the Masks of Venice: Mistery, Illusion & Seduction
Table of Contents
- 1 The Carnival and the Masks of Venice: Mistery, Illusion & Seduction
- 2 The masks of the Commedia dell’Arte
Masks have always been used in the ancient tradition of Greek theatre, in the Italian commedia dell’arte, in the Japanese theatre, and in African culture as well. Venetian masks were used during the Carnival and in theatrical representations, as in the comedies of Carlo Goldoni who largely contributed to making them famous not only in Italy but throughout the world.
Originally, it consisted of a hollow face with a monstrous or grotesque appearance, worn to hide human features and, during religious ceremonies, to ward off evil spirits.
The Carnival of Venice
Its origins are very old: the first testimony dates back to a document of the Doge Vitale Falier of 1094, where the word Carnival is mentioned for the first time. The Venetian oligarchies instituted the Carnival to grant to the population, especially to the most humble social classes, a time dedicated entirely to fun and festivities, during which Venetians and foreigners poured throughout the city to party with music and wild dances. Masks and costumes guaranteed anonymity: all social divisions were leveled, and even public mockery of authority and aristocracy was authorized. These concessions were considered an outlet for the tensions and discontent that were created within the Republic of Venice.
The history of the mask in Venice begins in 1268, when the oldest law limiting the improper use of the mask was drafted: in this document it was forbidden for men in masks, the so-called mattaccini, to play the game of “ova”, which consisted of throwing eggs filled with rose water at the ladies walking in the alleys of Venice.
With Carnival, the mask becomes a symbol of jokes and illusion, of transgression, freedom, and immorality.
During Carnival, personal identity, gender, social class no longer existed.
The artisans who made masks were called maschereri since the time of Doge Foscari and had their statute dated April 1436 and belonged to the fringe of painters.
In 1773 there were officially 12 mask stores in Venice. The demand for masks fueled the black market.
The masks were (and still are) made of papier-mâché and different models were produced in varied colors and decorated with gems, fabrics, and ribbons.
The mask was not used only during the Carnival period but on many occasions during the year: it was allowed on the day of Santo Stefano (which marked the beginning of the Venetian Carnival) and until midnight of Shrove Tuesday (which ended the Carnival celebrations); it was allowed during the fifteen days of Ascension Day and some, with special exceptions, used it until mid-June. Moreover, during all the most important events such as official banquets or Republic festivities, the use of Bauta and Tabarro was allowed.
The Bauta was used by both men and women on various occasions: it was mandatory for married women who went to the theater while it was forbidden for girls of marriageable age. The Bauta is formed by a black veil or Tabarro, a black tricorn, and a white mask. The white mask was called “larva”, probably from the Latin word Larva (ghost-like, masked), and allowed to drink and eat without ever taking it off, thus maintaining anonymity. People used to wear also the Tabarro, a long black cloak. It could be made of cloth or silk depending on the season. It was also widely used by women, dark in winter and white in summer.
The Face, or Larva, was among the most common carnival masks and is a type of Bauta. It is a simple white mask, which gives the wearer the appearance of a ghost. It has an oval shape and covers the entire face, with cutouts for the eyes but not the one for the mouth.
Another mask widely used in Venice was the Moretta (the dark one) or servetta muta (mute servant woman): a small strapless oval mask of black velvet with wide eyeholes and no mouth that was used by patrician women. Its invention originated in France, but it quickly spread in Venice. The mask was completed by veils and wide-brimmed hats. The moretta was held in place by the wearer biting on a button (the women wearing this mask were unable to speak, hence muta).
The Plague Doctor
Among the most bizarre Venetian masks, the Plague Doctor is the one recognizable and it consists of a bird-like beak mask, often filled with sweet or strong-smelling substances.
Originally the Plague Doctor was not a mask. Its costume was intended to protect doctors from airborne diseases during outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague in Europe. The plague killed half of the population of Venice during the two epidemics that devastated Europe in 1576 and 1630. This memory resonated with the collective imagination. On carnival day, among the baute and the morette you could also see the plague doctors alluding to the terrible years of the pandemic. The plague doctor’s mask was originally white.
The masks of the Commedia dell’Arte
Arlecchino (Arlequin, Harlequin)
Arlecchino is a mask of Bergamo origins but was adopted by the Venetian Carnival. The Harlequin mask originates from the contamination of two traditions: the Zanni from Bergamo and the “farcical diabolical characters of the French popular tradition”. The origin of the character is ancient, linked to agricultural rituals: Arlecchino is the name of a chthonic demon. In the twelfth century, Orderico Vitale in its “Historia Ecclesiastica” tells of the appearance of a Herlechini family, a procession of dead souls led by this demon / giant.
The origin of the character is instead very ancient, linked to agricultural rituals: Arlecchino is the name of a chthonic demon. In the twelfth century, Orderico Vitale in its Ecclesiastical history tells of the appearance of a Herlechini family, a procession of dead souls led by this demon / giant. The root of the name is of Germanic origin: Hölle König (king of hell). In the Commedia dell’Arte, he is a spirit, sometimes witty, sometimes stupid, a poor devil.
Pantalone originated in Venice around the middle of the sixteenth century, he represents the typical old, stingy and lustful merchant: his very name is the one typically imposed on the males of wealthy families in Venice.
Another typical costume of Venetian masks is the green and white striped Zanni, also known as Brighella. Zanni was a character in the comic theater of ancient Rome, who later became a mask of the commedia dell’arte. The Zanni was often a servant and sometimes overlaps Harlequin.
The Venetian masks most used by the people were the Bernardone or Bernardon and Pitocco (two beggars) and the Gnaga, a man disguised as a woman. The Mattaccino was the carnival clown who, repeating an ancient custom, threw perfumed eggs at his friends on the balconies.
The Laws of the Carnival of Venice
During the Carnival, the Venetians allowed themselves transgressions of all kinds, and the Bauta or Moretta were used to maintaining anonymity and allow any forbidden game, both by men and women. Even priests and nuns were allowed to use masks to hide.
To limit the unstoppable moral decay of its people, Venice legislated several times on Carnival and regulated the use of masks and disguises. Since the beginning of 1300, several laws were issued in Venice to limit the indiscriminate use of masks.
It was forbidden to wear the mask in periods other than those of carnival and places of worship. The use of the mask was forbidden to prostitutes and men who frequented the brothels. The mask was often used to conceal one’s own identity.
The Tabarro was often worn to hide weapons and for this reason, many decrees were issued to prevent masks from using the cloak. Those who were caught in flagrante delicto were subject to very heavy penalties.
In 1776, a new law forbade women to go to the theater without a mask.
After the fall of the Republic, the Austrian government did not allow the use of masks, except for private or reserved parties. With the beginning of the Austrian domination, the Carnival of Venice went through a phase of decadence.
Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it, China-underground.com, Weirditaly.com and RetroFuturista.com.