The Venetian Masks of Carnevale
Carnevale di Venezia was first recorded in 1268 and masks have always been a central feature of the celebration. People were allowed to wear them from the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day, December 26) until midnight of Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). However, masks were commonly worn by Venetians throughout the year, as they were permitted during Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas. Therefore, Venetians could spend a large portion of the year in disguise. Mask makers (mascherari) enjoyed a special position in society with their own laws and their own guild.
Venetian masks can be made of leather or with the original papier-mâché technique. The original masks were rather simple in design and decoration and often had a symbolic and practical function. Today most masks are made with the application of gesso and gold leaf and are hand-painted, using natural feathers and gems to decorate. The most common Venetian Carnevale masks are the bauta, moretta and larva.
Bauta, the main type of mask worn during Carnevale is ‘one that covers the whole face, with a stubborn chin line, no mouth and lots of gilding.’ One may find masks sold as bautas that cover only the upper part of the face from the forehead to the nose and upper cheeks, thereby concealing identity but enabling the wearer to talk, eat or drink easily. Traditionally, the bauta was used on many occasions as a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status, permitting the wearer to act more freely in cases where he or she wanted to interact with other members of the society outside the bounds of identity and everyday convention. This mask was considered an ideal disguise by kings and princes who could move freely through the city without being recognized.
The moretta is an oval mask of black velvet that was traditionally worn by women visiting convents. It rapidly became popular because it brought out the beauty of feminine features. The mask was finished off with a veil and worn with elaborate capes or dresses.
The larva, also called the volto mask is mainly white and typically Venetian, especially when worn with a tricorn hat and cloak. It is thought the word “larva” comes from the Latin meaning “mask” or “ghost.” It is easy to imagine the effect of a Venetian all dressed in black with a white mask and a black tricorn walking in the moonlight. Like the bauta, the shape of the mask allowed the bearer to breathe and drink easily, so there was no need to take it off, thus preserving anonymity. These masks were crafted from fine wax cloth which made them light and non-irritating and were the ideal mask to wear while eating, drinking and dancing.
The Medico della Peste, with its long beak is one of the most bizarre and recognizable of the Venetian masks. The striking design has a macabre history originating from the 17th century, where doctors treating plague victims would fill the beak with potpourri to disguise the smell of death. The mask is white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eye holes covered with crystal discs creating a bespectacled effect. Another popular figure is the Arlecchino, typically depicted in a harlequin multicolored costume comprised of diamond shaped patterns.
The sight of these characters is one that is long remembered. The vibrancy, color and atmosphere of the Venetian Carnevale is like no other.