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Venice, city of Masks – Venice Carnival

Why is Venice the city of Masks? Learn about Venice Carnival

Flower masks Venice
Masks in Venice

First of all let’s define what is a Maschera (mask): in Venetian culture the term “maschera” refers to “putting on a beard and mustache” and “maschera” was also the nickname given to women who disguised themselves as men and men who disguised themselves as women.

Soon the mask became the symbol of freedom and transgression of all social rules imposed by the Republic of Venice. “Good morning Siora Maschera (Madam Mask)” was the greeting which could be heard all over the streets, the canals, and the lagoon shores. Personal identity, gender, social class no longer existed, it was all part of the Great Illusion of Carnival which took place in one of the most unique cities in the world, where anything could happen. The mask was the symbol of the need to indulge on fun, the illusion of playing tricks or to pretend to be someone else and it also expressed different meanings: celebration and transgression, freedom and immorality.

According to Donato Sartori, one of the biggest Venetian “mascareri” (the “mascareri” are the artisans who create the masks) there are two different connotation given to the word mask: one positive and one negative. The positive one is for the theatrical mask (those created by the Commedia dell’Arte and Carlo Goldoni); the negative one refers to “a false face behind which you can hide your true face, so you cannot be recognized” (Sartori-Lanata 1984). The Venetian culture of Masks developed both potentialities of the concept of mask, the artistic and the exploitable ones. But why is the strict connection between the mask and Venice stronger than anywhere else in the world?

Masks in windows

Walking among the calli and campielli the eye often falls on the windows of the numerous shops which produce and sell masks: masks as a souvenir of a trip, as an object to hang on a wall, to use as a paper stopper or just as a small brooch or hair clip. Neutral simple masks or more refined ones which can be worn, covering the face during Carnival or for a private party. In Venice the masks used to be and still are a product created in series. Today, like 500 years ago, masks are churned out from the artisan shops for a daily and mass use, and just like 500 year ago, they are also collectible items.

The history of the Venetian mask begins in 1268, the year in which we can find the oldest law limiting the misuse of the mask. In this document it was forbidden for men in masks, the so-called “mattaccini”, to perform the game of “ovi” (eggs), that is they were not allowed to launch eggs filled with rose water against the ladies who were walking in the streets.

Lina Urban (1989) says: The art of the mascareri and the targheri (the makers of paper machè masks and shields ) was one of the specialization which the painters divided themselves into in 1271, when they constituted their own art guild. They used clay for the models, plaster for the molds, paper machè, gauze, glue made with flour, modelled wax, paint and gems, fabrics and ribbons for mask making and decoration (exactly like they do today).

Mascheraio by Cea
Mascheraio

Since the beginning of the ‘300 numerous laws were promulgated decreeing the end of the debauchery of the Venetians and limiting the overuse of masks: it was forbidden to wear masks in the periods which did not belong to Carnival time and in places of worship. The use of masks was forbidden to prostitutes and men who frequented brothels. This is because the mask was often used to hide the identity and to resolve shady deals or to carry on awkward relationships. In 1776, a new law, this time introduced to protect the forgotten “family honor”, forbade women from going to the theater without a mask, the so called “bauta” , or the “volto” and the “tabarro” (cloak), but the mask was forbidden to girls waiting to get married.

The “Bauta” was not only used in the days of Carnevale but it was a disguised used by the Venetians in many various occasions. The Bauta consisted of a black cloak called a “tabarro”, a black tricorn hat which was worn on the head above the cloak and a white mask called larva (the name derives from the Latin Larva which means “ghost” or even “mask”). The women wore, generally, another type of mask as famous as the larva, which was called Moretta. It was an oval mask of black velvet and was used by the ladies when they went to visit the nuns. The fashion of the Moretta was imported from France and it spread quickly in Venice as it was a mask which suited particularly well the feminine features especially when adorned with veils and hat with flaps. The Moretta was a dumb mask because you wore it holding a small button on the inside of the mask, at the height of the mouth.

The classical bauta
The Bauta

During Carnival, the Venetians treated themselves to all kinds of transgressions and the Bauta or the Moretta were used to maintain the anonymity and permitted any prohibited game, both by men and women. Even the priests and nuns took advantage of the masks to conceal themselves and to run away for amorous escapes.

The tabarro was made up by a doubled cape over the shoulders, according to the season it would be made of wool or silk and it could be white or blue, scarlet for a gala occasion. Sometimes it would be decorated with frills, fringes and military style bows. It was widely used by women, dark in winter, white in summer. The tabarro was often used to hide weapons and for this very reason many decrees were issued to prevent masks from using the coat for any unorthodox purpose, and especially dangerous ones. Those who were caught in flagrante delicto were met with very heavy punishment: the punishment for men was two years in prison, the service for 18 months in the galleys of the Venetian Republic and the payment of 500 pounds to the fund of the Council of Ten.

The women, often prostitutes, which were found in masks were whipped all the way from Piazza San Marco to Rialto (a really long stretch of road) and then publicly ridiculed between the two columns of St. Mark’s Square and finally they were banned for four years from the territory of the Republic of Venice and they too were forced to pay 500 pounds to fund the Council of Ten.

The widespread use of masks by Venetians and tourists during the Carnival period did increase the demand and, consequently, contributed to the evolution of the importance of the mascherai, the artisans of the mask. According to Lina Urban, in 1773 there used to be in Venice 12 mask workshops with 31 people (18 masters, 7 workers and 6 shop boys), which is a very limited number if you think at the amount of masks which were required in those days, which used to be quite high. At the end of 1700 the Venetian mask has already become an exported product, generally produced under the table (usually done by women at home) and then smuggled. This explains why the number of official mask makers was so small compared to the amount of masks actually required and produced.

Besides the traditional Venetian masks there are also the masks of the Commedia dell’Arte, made famous by the theater and especially the plays of Carlo Goldoni.

After the fall of the Republic, the Austrian government forbade the use of masks, except for private parties or for the elite. With the start of the Austrian domination the Venice Carnival went through a phase of decline. Only during the second Austrian government it was once again permitted to use masks during Carnival. The Italian government was more open but Venice was no longer the city of the carnival, but just a little imperial province without personal liberty.

Venice was for centuries an extremely rich city, but after 1000 years of splendor, for the last two century an exhausting decadence in touristic terms has been taking place. Only two things have not changed since then: the urban structure and the motorization restricted only to vessels. Venice is a city where you still must go around walking , just like two, three, four, five hundred years ago.

Venetian masks

Venice presents itself as the sum of appearances without substance, because the substance has been missing right from the origins of this amphibious city, uncertain between water and land, between East and West. Venice itself is a mask with no face behind. 

About The Author

Pretending to be a food & travel blogger, giving it a go as a cooking instructor and culinary guide. Venice loving daughter and wanna-be guru. #aphotoofveniceaday Offering cooking lessons at http://www.cookinvenice.com As a friend once said: A Fire Cracker full of energy, writing a book on Cicchetti!

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