Masks in Venice, Italy
Venetian masks have been worn in Venice, Italy, since antiquity. Both men and women, were used to disguise themselves in their everyday life. This custom lasted for several centuries, from about the second half of 1200s’ until the end of the Veneto Republic in 1797.
Any servant could be mistaken for an aristocrat, and vice-versa. Men and women could be flirting more freely, without the fear of moral judgement and have less inhibitions. You often could not even tell women from men!
People started to engage in different illegal and immoral acts, such as gambling all day long, and with an excessive sexual promiscuity. Even priests and nuns would wear masks and act like the others.
The government of Venice in the second half of 1200 issued the first of a series of laws to limit the misuse of disguise, and to forbid the possession of a weapon while wearing a mask. The Pope of the time Christianised the custom and declared it Carnevale in celebration of the beginning of Lent, 40 days before Easter.
The town governments voted additional ordinances to control this habit. For example, they forbade the prostitutes to wear masks, nor could people at gambling places disguise themselves any longer.
It was forbidden to wear carnival masks outside the carnival and the parties. But there was an exception: in 1776 a new law required women to go to the theatre with a mask on, such as a bauta, and a long cloak called tabarro.
Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetian carnival; and people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day, December 26) at the start of the carnival season and midnight of Shrove Tuesday.
Venetian masks have a long history of protecting their wearer’s identity during promiscuous or decadent activities.
The history of the Venetian Mask is nearly as colorful as the masks themselves.
Masks were worn once a year but when the plague hit people were allowed to wear the masks all year around, new masks were made including the Doctor who sported a Mask, with glasses (symbolic of education) and a long bird like beak. Inside the beak a sachet of sweet smelling disinfectant herbs was placed, this was believed to protected Doctors of disease and death. With the help if a domestic cat, the rats and the plague, were contained. This is why cat masks have a Heroic significance in Italian culture.
Wearing Venetian masks has spread to Halloween masquerade balls and Mardi Gras, but they always carry their rich Italian history.
It is a full face mask designed to provide total anonymity to the wearer. It has a squarish and protruding jaw to allow the wearer to breathe freely and eat and drink with the mask on. It was usually worn together with a tricorn hat and a cloak. It was often used to cast a vote at political events where anonymity was required.
Dottore della Peste (Plague Doctor) Mask
This mask was originally white with a long beak. It was worn by doctors during the plague to avoid infection. It was commonly worn in conjunction with a wide brimmed leather hat, and a wooden stick. The stick was used to examine patients without having to touch them.
The costume was characterised by the multicoloured diamond shaped patterns.
Colombina (Little Dove)
It is a half mask often decorated with gold or silver leaf design, feathers and crystals.
Jolly (Joker, Jester)
The Jolly was the buffoon of the king. The mask sports a hat made of pointy spikes topped by a bell.