City of Masks: The Carnival of Venice
Venice is the capital of the Veneto region situated in North-Eastern Italy among a group of 118 small islands that are separated by small bridges and canals. It is surrounded by the Adriatic sea.
The city itself is situated in the Venetian lagoon, a marshy piece of land that spans between the Po and Piave rivers.
The actual place name, Venice, is derived from the ancient people who first inhabited the islands in the 10th century BC. They were called the Veneti. These days, approximately 272,000 people inhabit the islands of Venice.
The whole city is known as one of the most beautiful places in the world and is listed as a World Heritage Site.
It has been called the most beautiful city built by man, but is also known by many other names: La Dominante, Serenissima, The City of Water, City of Bridges, and of course the City of Masks.
City of Masks Carnival
Each year, the Carnival starts around the time of Shrove Tuesday. The date changes slightly each year for Easter. The festival itself was restarted in 1979 after hundreds of years. The origins of the festival actually began in the year 1162 and happened annually until 1797.
The history behind the festival began with the victory of the Repubblica della Serenissima, which was Venice's original name. The war was against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico, in 1162 and after the victory, the local people began to celebrate by dancing. Each year, people began to meet in San Marco Square. When the city came under the rule of the King of Austria, the festival was banned, and the wearing of masks was forbidden.
These days, over three million people visit Venice for the festival every year. And the masks are a centerpiece of the whole occasion. In fact, the masks were brought back purely to draw in the tourists, but has once again given Venice a mystique entirely unknown anywhere else in the world.
One of the highlights of the festival is the giving of awards for the best mask. This is known as "la mashcera piu bella," or the most beautiful mask.
A Colorful Extravaganza
There are many varieties of masks worn at the festival. Some people chose to wear their everyday clothes with a mask or gloves added as their accessories. But many come dressed in spectacular renaissance clothing, complete with full masks, dress swords, and side daggers. There are so many variations on the costumes, and to see the people thronging to the main square dressed in these mysterious clothes is a sight to see.
It brings to life the times of old and adds a magical fairy-like quality to the scene. At night, it's even more spectacular with the lanterns sparkling on the water of the canals. The bridges alight with people, set against a backdrop of stunning medieval buildings.
Masks have always been a part of the festival. Nobody really knows the origins, but it's believed that people started to wear masks for various reasons around the 13th century. This was said to have been because of the rigid class system that was in vogue at that time. To cover the face was to show your status among the common people. But that's really just scholarly guesswork, or so it states.
Traditional View of Venice
The Bauta Mask
The Bauta mask can be gold-colored, but it is usually a plain white color. The design covers the whole face and fits comfortably. Even though it is regarded as a grotesque piece, with the oversized nose, large chin, and no mouth, it is one of the more common masks.
The look is completed with cape, usually red or black, but can be any color. This is finished off with a tricorn hat. Strangely enough, back in the 18th century, this look was the norm for high society males who were in politics.
Obviously, this was to make sure nobody would know who they were when they were giving out prison sentences, hence they couldn't be identified. Back then, there was a lot of political intrigue, and the assassin's knife was never far away!
In simpler terms, the Bauta mask and cape were worn for voting, in a similar way that we have secret ballots or polling today.
Bauta Venetian Mask
The Plague Doctor Mask
Many people believe that the plague doctor mask worn throughout Europe in the 17th century in the midst of the plague offered protection against germs.
But, of course, back then the population had no idea of what germs were. The masks were in fact worn to scare away the devil or demons that they believed were causing the population to be sick.
Of course, they knew that by touching the disease it could kill them, so as well as trying to scare away the devil, they did hope that it would stop the illness from reaching them. Even though they didn't know how.
They often wore a long black cloak and white gloves to add to the effect and to prevent contamination. They also used a stick to push people out of the way.
It must have been a strange and disturbing sight, seeing these ghostly shadows walking through the fallen victims.
The design was invented in the 17th century by a French physician named Charles de Lorme.
Venice by Night
Costume Contest - Video by Vlogitaly
Moretta Muta / Servetta Muta Mask
The Moretta, or "Dark Mute One," was worn by ladies. It was a black velvet, rather small oval mask that had large eye holes but no mouth or lips.
It was a rather strange mask in the sense that the women who wore it could not speak, owing to the fact that they had to hold onto the mask from the inside using their teeth. Inside, there was a button or bit that would be placed between the teeth.
It was sometimes worn with a veil. This added to the mystery, but must have been very uncomfortable, and was likely worn for only short periods of time. This went out of fashion in the late 18th century.
The Volto Mask
The Volto (face) or Larva (ghost) mask is one of the most popular masks. Even though the original design was purely made in white, the ones we see today are nearly always multi-colored or gilded.
Always worn with a tricorn hat and cloak, the overall look is captivating but slightly unsettling. It is tied behind the head with a ribbon, but the full face mask doesn't have any mouth or hinged lower jaw, unlike the original which could be opened so people could eat and drink. I think it's one of the most beautiful masks. Along with the cloak, hat, and gloves, the overall look is so colorful that it really brings to life the atmosphere of the ancient festival.
Volto Larva Mask
The Original Arlecchino or Harlequin Mask
The Arlecchino or Harlequin Venetian Mask
The Harlequin mask is the comedy mask. It was first seen in the Italian Commedia or comedic stage play. The harlequin was a strange character, very similar to the "King's Fools" or court jester in the king's court in medieval Britain.
Rather than being a comedy character, he was in fact portrayed as a rather "noble savage" or lacking in sense, but full of emotion. Going from one extreme to the other. He had a short ape-like face, with a bump on his forehead that was said to show a devils horn.
The mask was originally made of wood but later changed to leather. He was shown to be a sad character, probably from peasant origin or even a slave.
The harlequin is bright and colorful, showing his mischievous side.
The Harlequin Mask Today
Venice Carnival Events
The Venice Carnival is not just about masks and costumes. There is so much to do and see. Each year there are classical concerts, Carnival photography tours, the classic gondolier rides, and so much more.
You also get to see the palace's and have a tour around the canals that span the whole of Venice.
As a collector of Venetian masks, I just love the color, the costumes, and the atmosphere of the Carnival of Masks.
I have at least 20 different styles of these fantastic masks placed around my home. They make great wall pieces and are so much more stylish than the usual paintings that adorn our houses.
I hope you enjoyed the tour of The Carnival of Venice.
Have You Ever Visited the Carnival of Venice?
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Nell Rose