History and meaning of Venetian carnival masks

History and meaning of Venetian carnival masks

Masks are an essential component of the Venetian Carnival. With a help of the mask everybody remained anonymous and people of all social classes had a possibility to become equal. In a society where social classes were very well defined wearing mask allowed to hide any form of identification based on origin, age, gender or religion.

While wearing a mask was a status symbol in the Venice of the 17 th century, its use was subject to strict rules. It was forbidden to wear masks outside the carnival time or in sacred places like churches. A man could not dress himself as a woman and prostitutes were not allowed to wear masks in public.

Originally Venetian masks were made of leather, porcelain or glass and had a practical or symbolic function. Nowadays they are often made of hand-painted gesso or papier mache and decorated with feathers and gems.

Here are main types of Venetian carnival masks:

  • Bauta. The word ‘bauta’ refers not only to a mask, but to the entire outfit worn by men and women. It was especially popular in the eighteenth century and remained in vogue into modern days. Bauta consists of a tricorn black hat, a veil and a mantle which doubles over the shoulders originally white, deep-blue or red in colour. The mantle and veil made it easy to conceal arms which forced the State of Venice to issue several laws regulating the wearing of the costumes. A mask worn with this costume is called ‘larva’ which is a white mask of peculiar shape allowing the wearer to eat and drink without removing it.
  • Moretta. Usually worn by women it is an oval, strapless, velvet mask with no opening for the mouth. Moretta is held in place by a button clenched between the teeth which was also a reason why it also called a ‘mute mask’.
  • Medico della peste. Originally, it wasn’t a carnival mask, but an outfit invented by the French physician worn as a protection against the plague. The mask is historically linked to the Venice as the city was hit by several plague outbreaks between 1381 and 1680. The costume consisted of an ankle length black overcoat gown made from heavy fabric and waxed, protective gloves and bird-like mask with a long beak. The mask was white with two round wholes covered with glass. It had two small nose holes and acted as a respirator filled with spices, herbs and other aromatic substances.
  • Gnaga. This mask is a part of the costume worn by men disguised as women. The outfit includes female clothing and a mask portraying a female cat.
  • Arlecchino. Originally it is one of the most popular masks of the Commedia dell’Arte of the 16 th century. Nowadays it is a central figure in the modern Venetian Carnival.

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