It’s not surprising in the slightest, that every single carnival – regardless of its country of origin or other aspects, it is traditionally associated with the beloved Venetian carnival mask. The mask is commonly known as the sign of a carnival, but it has a very interesting history which is rooted deep in old Venice traditions.
Venetian masks can be analysed and inspected through the old traditions of Venice and the customs that are held with the goal of making everyone equal and hiding true identities. Based on the history of Italy, Venetians especially enjoyed a much higher standard of living – but the city itself was heavily characterised by the inequality faced by its citizens connected solely with the level of income. The tradition of wearing the mask during both daily life and other activities was a way to hide identity and to enjoy a certain level of privacy and mystique.
Masks were perceived as the best way to make everyone feel equal, regardless of their financial position, status or class. Everyone was seen as equal whilst wearing their mask. People could speak freely about anything and everything they wanted as they didn’t fear being judged. As a direct result of this, Venice became the infamous city where people were allowed to do basically anything they wanted – as long as it was free, decadent and had an element of moral decline.
Due to this, citizens decided that during some months, wearing the mask wasn’t allowed – all the months except for the ones between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday. This was the period where the Venice Carnival was organised and people once again put on their masks to enjoy the mystery and anonymity that comes with wearing one.
When talking about Venetian masks, we should highlight the two main groups; commedia dell’arte masks and carnival masks.
Commedia dell’arte Masks
This style of mask is connected to the theater, acrobatics, playing and even the act of juggling. Actors in plays would wear masks typical to different regions which would represent the cultures and traditions of other areas. Interestingly, male actors mostly always wore masks, whilst female performers didn’t. Among the most well-known characters is Arlecchino, a comedic figure. Traditionally, the male actors who took on this role wore black masks which had a red spot on the forehead.
This group of Venetian masks relates to the much more traditional and more recognised types of mask. Such masks were worn by citizens during the carnival period, regardless of their social class and status. Bauta is a very popular mask in the carnival, it hides identity and class perfectly.
So, Venetian masks might be popular all over the world today, but they have a humble and long rooted history in the culture and social order of Venice.