Venetian masks date back to around 1200’s and are a symbol of freedom and transgression. The wearer can “mask” their identity allowing themselves to transform into someone else whilst wearing it. Social categories can be disregarded, and a poor man could be a nobleman for the night if he so wished. Masks also added a sense of mystery and charm to the wearer and although now they are commonly associated with carnivals, they were first worn at lavish balls that were held by the rich.
The government soon banned the wearing of masks all year round and just limited it to carnival season due to the danger that wearing a mask provoked. Wears could get up close and personal with others that they wouldn’t normally be able to do due to the disguise, leading to sinister acts of violence.
How They Are Made
There are many different types of masks ranging from some more simplistic designs to others that are highly decorative and considered pieces of art with their intricate hand decorated designs.
Venetian masks were mainly made of products that were present at the time such as paper and glue (papier-mache), earth and clay (ceramic/plaster), rags, fabric and even pieces of animal skin. The common colours used then were black, red, yellow, green and other pastel colours that could be obtained by plants and plant fibres. These would then be decorated with various fabrics, glass shards, ornaments, pins and metal accessories.
Masks nowadays are in a wider variety of colours with simpler forms and decorations of a much larger variety. As years have gone on new technologies of colours and applications make these ancient masks even more extraordinary and considered works of art.
Reasons For Wearing
Not only were venetian masks used for social purposes but there was a specific mask worn by doctors during the plague. Known as the Medico della Peste, this mask was made from leather and featured a long, hollow beak which was used to store herbs to prevent contracting the deadly disease when treating patients. The eyes also featured crystal discs so that they eyes were protected but allowing the doctor to still see. Today the masks are still seen during carnival season, usually with modern variations, but you are likely to see them accompanied by a black hat, cloak and white gloves.
In the 14th century bespoke makers of the masks gave life to their creations and took requests from customers. Craftsmen began making masks to make them portray an emotion or feeling such as sweet, gentle, angry, cheerful, seductive and enigmatic.
Popular masks include, as mentioned above, the Medico della Peste, Arlecchino and Bauta masks. Thought to be popular due to their theatrics and outfit that accompanies them.
Arlecchino, a zany trickster or more specifically “harlequin”, is an ape-like mask which features a large round brow and a snout nose, conveying to the characters simple nature. However, the masks trademark feature is the bump that sticks out on the forehead which is said to represent the devil’s horn and represent the characters mischievous nature.
The Bauta is one of the most popular venetian masks in historic times. It features a white mask that is paired with a cloak and was regulated by the government. The disguise was required to be worn by citizens when voting on political issues and participating in events that required anonymity to ensure equality.