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City of Masks: The Carnival of Venice

Nell is a trained Psychologist and lives in London England. She has been writing since she was a child.

This article explores the different masks you'll see at Venice's carnival celebration.

This article explores the different masks you'll see at Venice's carnival celebration.

The Masks of Venice's Carnival

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.

Carnival participants

Carnival participants

All out for Venice carnival

All out for Venice carnival

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.

Carnival participants across the water from St. Marks

Carnival participants across the water from St. Marks

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.

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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.

A more traditional view of Venice and its canals.

A more traditional view of Venice and its canals.

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

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

Venice by night

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.

Moretta mask

Moretta mask

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

Volto larva mask

The original Arlecchino or Harlequin 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

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.

Carnival in Venice at night

Carnival in Venice at night

© 2013 Nell Rose


Nell Rose (author) from England on February 24, 2015:

Thanks aesta, I would love to go to the Carnival, just think of all the masks I could bring back! lol! thanks for reading, nell

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 24, 2015:

I had been to Venice 3 times but not during the carnival. I want to do this one day. The masks are lovely.

Nell Rose (author) from England on June 02, 2013:

Thanks so much moonlake, glad you liked it, nell

Hi christopher, it is lovely isn't it. great to see you, nell

Hi agus, yes the carnival is awesome, I love the masks, being a collector of them I would love to be there!

Agus Fanani on June 01, 2013:

Those masks are really amazing and makes this carnival one of famous events in the world.

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on June 01, 2013:

Venice is such a beautiful city. I spent a day there once. Your splendid hub really manages to bring all its exotic magic to life.

Thanks Nell.

moonlake from America on June 01, 2013:

Very beautiful and interesting hub. I love all the masks. Someday maybe I will get to Venice. Voted up and shared.

Nell Rose (author) from England on June 01, 2013:

HI Seeker, thanks so much, yes they are gorgeous aren't they? I would love to go and visit, and dress like that too, nell

Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on June 01, 2013:

What a fascinating hub this was and the masks of venice are extraordinary. This must be a wonderful site to see. I would imagine that Venice is a beautiful city at any time of the year, but the mask festival must add a special kind of magic to the city.

A thoroughly enjoyable hub and the photographs are stunning! Voted up!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 31, 2013:

Hi Deb, I can see you now snapping away at all the costumes and masks with your camera! lol! it would be great wouldn't it? glad you liked it, and thanks!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on May 30, 2013:

This was wonderful, Mel! I learned so much about the masks, and never even realized that there was a festival. Wow, could I get some great pictures!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

Thanks so much Anna, the Carnival of Masks is an amazing event, I had a friend who went last year, she doesn't stop talking about it! lol! thanks so much for reading, nell

Anna Haven from Scotland on May 30, 2013:

I have been to Venice but unfortunately not at the time of the Carnival. It sounds incredible very romantic and mysterious.

You have done a brilliant job of showcasing an event which sounds different and definitely worth a visit. Voted up and awesome!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

Hi DDE, thanks so much for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

Hi Sharan, that must have been lovely, I would love to go back just to get some more mask! lol! thanks for reading, and yes the link is great, thank you.

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

Thanks Glimmer, I just love the costumes and masks and the whole atmosphere, the photos are great aren't they? thanks for reading, nell

Claudia Porter on May 30, 2013:

Well before I was on the earth my mother said she visited Venice during Carnivale and said it was magnificent and almost eery. Love your photos and putting this on my list of things to do.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 30, 2013:

Wonderful hub!

It is like revisiting the place. I had been there last year and was amazed to see the masks and even bought some as Souvenirs.

You have given some interesting facts with beautiful pictures. I have linked your hub to mine. If you have any objection, please say so.

Thanks for sharing this interesting hub!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 30, 2013:

Most beautiful and the photos are stunning, Venice is a lovely place to visit sounds extraordinary

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

Hi b. Malin, aw thanks! lol! great to see you back, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

HI pinto, glad you liked it, and thanks!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

Hy ytsy, sounds like your daughter has great taste too! lol thanks so much for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

Hi Genna, thanks so much, yes I love it, just wish I was there! lol!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 30, 2013:

Thanks Mike, glad you liked it, and thanks for reading, nell

Mike Robbers from London on May 30, 2013:

Fascinating story of the Venice carnival and the mask culture and excellent photography as well. A wonderful hub that i really enjoyed reading!

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on May 29, 2013:

Hi Nell;

I’ve heard about this carnival, but have never seen it. The masks are fascinating, and I enjoyed your stories about their background and descriptions, and the carnival. This hub is the next best thing to actually being there. So interesting. Well done.

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on May 29, 2013:

Nell, I was pulled into your hub because of my daughter's mask collection. What a great job with your information and images! Sounds like a great event to put on a travel-to list. Venice has to be a place to travel to. The mystique of the masks is highly interesting. Thanks much for this history lesson too!

Subhas from New Delhi, India on May 29, 2013:

Hi Nell! This is really a very well written and well informed hub. So many things I learned today.

b. Malin on May 29, 2013:

Hi Nell,

Wow, this is really a "Treat" to read about and see the Video...It's like a "Mini Virtual Tour" of Venice...Masks and All! My Votes of UP Beautiful & Interesting go to YOU!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi mary, I have a few of the Masks above but I wish I had all of them! lol! thanks so much for reading, and yes I would love to go back to Venice, its such a lovely place, nell

Mary Hyatt from Florida on May 29, 2013:

Well, I am quite a collector, but sadly I don't have any of these masks. You are lucky to have them. You did a superb job with this Hub, Nell. I love the photos you used, too.

I've never been to Venice, but I'd sure like to go.

Voted UP and will share and Pin.

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi Faith, thank you so much, it was something I have been meaning to do for ages, but just kept forgetting, glad you liked it, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi Suzette, you are so lucky to have visited it so many times, I love the masks they are so mysterious, every time I go anywhere and spot them I have to buy one! lol! thanks!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi livingsta, thanks so much, I remember first seeing it on that tv program I can't remember the guys name, but it was fascinating, thanks!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi Flourish, thanks so much for reading, its lovely isn't it?

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi Alicia, yes wouldn't it? I would take so many photos, and of course get dressed up too! glad you liked it, and thanks!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi ruby, yes me too! I have watched a wonderful series on tv recently, and it took in all of italy and venice, I was smitten! lol!

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi drbj, thanks so much for reading, yes its so fascinating, I got interested in it when I read the mary hoffman books, now I am addicted to masks and all things Italy! lol!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on May 29, 2013:

Venice is a beautiful, fascinating city, Nell, and your hub is just as beautiful and fascinating with the story and photos of carnival masks. Thank you for this treat - voted up.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on May 29, 2013:

This is a great hub Nell. I don't own any masks but i would love to. The history is fantastic. I would love to take a boat ride through The Grand Canal in a gondola......YEA!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 29, 2013:

This is a beautiful and fascinating hub, Nell! I would love to visit Venice and see the masks. The carnival would be a wonderful photo opportunity!

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 29, 2013:

What intriguing masks in an intriguing city. I've never heard of this carnival but imagine it is quite the visual spectacle! Voted up and more!

livingsta from United Kingdom on May 29, 2013:

Thank you for this hub Nell. Beautiful with lovely pictures. I have not heard about the masks, but now I know through your hub. Thank you for sharing this with us. Voted up, useful, interesting and sharing!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on May 29, 2013:

Nell: I have been to Venice many times but have never been there for the Carnival. I have heard about it and many shops in Venice sell the masks. Aren't the masks wonderful? This is so well done and well presented. I so enjoyed reading this!

Faith Reaper from southern USA on May 29, 2013:

Wow, Nell, this is a hub extraordinaire!!!

Oh, how I wish I could attend such. How very fascinating. And the imagery is beyond beautiful with the gorgeous colors and such!!!

You have outdone yourself here. Thanks for such an extensive hub here covering the Carnival of Venice.

Superb! Really enjoyed reading and viewing all of the amazing imagery. I don't know which mask I love the best, as they are all so unique and beautiful.

Voted up ++++ and sharing

Blessings, Faith Reaper

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi howler,thanks so much for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi billy, thanks so much and I am glad you liked it, yes its beautiful isn't it?

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi Feline, I haven't read it yet! not fair! lol! I didn't realise that it was set in Venice, I will definitely have to buy it now, thanks so much for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi kitty, thanks so much and yes we are fine over here, mind you the rain is turning my feet into ducks feet but hey can't have it all! haha! thanks kitty, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi travmaj, lol! love that China placard! yes you are so lucky, I would love to go to the celebration too, thanks so much for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hiya Jools, those outfits are just gorgeous aren't they? maybe I should collect those too! lol! thanks so much for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 29, 2013:

Hi Rayne, thanks so much for reading, nell

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on May 29, 2013:

Loved this Nell; I would love to be there, all of that colour and tradition, the outfits are sublime.

Rayne123 on May 28, 2013:

wow great hub

interesting information


travmaj from australia on May 28, 2013:

This was lovely - I enjoyed being back in Venice. I went last year -first time back after 25 years. It was glorious and remains in my top ten cities. Sadly, I haven't been to the carnival, not there at that particular time. I bought some masks though, for myself and gifts - so much choice, couldn't resist. I did see the humour in one stall promoting his masks with a huge placard - 'Not made in China' The fun of being a tourist! Thanks Nell Rose - voting.

Kitty Fields from Summerland on May 28, 2013:

What an enchanting place to be...beautiful! Thanks for sharing this with us, Nell. Hope all is well on your side of the pond. :)

Feline Prophet on May 28, 2013:

Just read Dan Brown's 'Inferno', a lot of which is set in Venice...and this hub brought it alive!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 28, 2013:

Beautiful! Venice by night is pretty spectacular. Thanks for the tour, Nell. It was almost like being on vacation. :)

Jeff Boettner from Tampa, FL on May 28, 2013:

I've heard of the carnival of masks and hope to visit Venice someday (Your pics are amazing). Fascinating story on how the carnival originated. Cool to know you collect masks, I have a friend who has one as well, beautiful in detail and color.

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 28, 2013:

Thanks Jackie, I am addicted to my Masks! lol! they are dotted around my house, so I love this Carnival, glad you liked it, nell

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on May 28, 2013:

Wow this was fantastic, you really put some work on this one! Love all the pictures and info, you took me right there. I would love to go! ^&+

Nell Rose (author) from England on May 28, 2013:

Thanks so much Natasha, glad you liked it, nell

Natasha from Hawaii on May 28, 2013:

Those costumes and masks are so incredibly elaborate! Wow! Great information, too.

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