Masks are an important feature of the Venetian Carnival. Traditionally people were allowed to wear masks in Venice for about six months per year between the Feast of Santo Stefano (December 26) and the beginning of the Carnival season on Tuesday Shrove, but also on Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas.
The origin of masks goes back to the 13th century when a document tells that the Great Council decided that masked people were forbidden to gamble or visit convents. A the end of the Republic it was forbidden to wear masks in daily life and by the 18th century it was allowed only for three months from December 26. With the Austrian conquest of Venice in 1798, mask-wearing – as well as Carnival – were banned. Only in the 1970s the long-forgotten art of mask-making was restarted as the celebrations for the Carnival.
But which are the most famous masks of the Carnival of Venice? What do they represent?
Originally a simple stark white mask, the Bauta is today often heavily gilded. It covers the entire face and is characterized by an over-prominent nose, thick eyebrows and no mouth. To preserve the wearer’s anonymity, the Bauta was designed to enable to talk, eat and drink without having to remove it and it was often accompanied by a red or black cape and a tricorn. During the 18th century, the Venetian government decided that citizens (at that time only the men) must wear it at certain political decisions or events where it was required to act anonymously as peers.
The Colombina is a half-mask only covering the wearer’s eyes, nose and upper cheeks. It is often decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers. It is held up to the face by a baton or is tied with ribbon. Its origin comes back to the Commedia dell’Arte: Colombina was a maid and a soubrette, a character of the Italian theatre adored for generations.
Medico della peste (The Plague Doctor)
The Medico della peste, with its long beak, is one of the most bizarre and known Venetian masks. Once ago it was only a mask used by the doctors to prevent the spread of disease. The mask is often white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eyeholes covered with crystal discs. Its use as a carnival mask is entirely a modern convention and today it is worn with black hat and long black cloak, white gloves and a stick to move patients without having to come into physical contact with them.
Moretta / Servetta muta (Dark lady / mute servant woman)
The moretta or servetta muta was a small black velvet oval mask with wide eyeholes, no lips or mouth sometimes finished off with a veil. This mask, worn by patrician women, was only just large enough to hide a woman’s identity and was held in place by the wearer biting on a button or bit (so the women wearing this mask were unable to speak, hence “mute”).
Another classic half mask coming back to the Commedia dell’Arte is Pantalone, meaning he who wears the pants. It is usually represented as a sad old man with an oversized nose like the beak of a crow with high brows and slanted eyes.
Also Arlecchino is a character of the commedia. He is meant to be a kind of “noble savage”, devoid of reason and full of emotion, often a servant of Pantalone. Originally Arlecchino’s half-mask was made of wood but later it became a leather mask painted of black with a short, blunt nose – like that one of an ape – wide, round, arching eyebrows, a rounded beard and always a “bump” upon his forehead meant to signify a devil’s horn.
Zanni is a half mask in leather, showing him with low forehead, bulging eyebrows and a long curved nose. It is said that the longer his nose, the more stupid he is. Also the low forehead is meant as a sign of stupidity.
What to do now? Walk around Venice and try to find all of these masks! Now it will be easy for you to recognize them…