15 November 2018

Venetian masks continue
to dazzle tourists long
beyond the time for Carnival

A dazzling Venetian mask decorated with an image of Saint Mark’s Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Walking through Venice, there are masks of all shapes and colours on sale everywhere, from cheap reproductions to original works of art, ranging from the simple to extraordinarily decorative pieces. They mainly fall into two categories: the traditional masks worn during Carnival, and the Commedia dell’arte character masks.

Venetian masks have ornate designs, bright colours such and complex decorations. The masks were traditionally worn with decorative beads matching in colour. They can be full-face masks, like the bauta or eye masks, such as the Columbina. Many designs have their origins in the traditions of Commedia dell’arte.

The Venetian tradition of masks goes back to the 12th century, and they may have been a response to one of the most rigid class structures in Europe. Typically, masks are worn during the Carnival, but they have been used on many other occasions, usually as a way to hide the wearer’s identity and social status.

Someone in a mask could be who they wanted to be and do what they wanted to do. A poor man could be a nobleman for a day. A woman could act like a man, or vice versa, and masks were often used to disguise identities during promiscuous or decadent activities.

Masks allowed the wearers to interact more freely with people outside normal social boundaries. A mask could be used for personal reasons or romantic encounters, but could be used to disguise illicit or criminal activities.

State inquisitors and spies could question citizens without fear of their true identity being discovered, and citizens could answer without fear of retribution. The morale of the people was maintained through the use of masks – for with no faces, everyone had a voice.

Even nuns and monks, bejewelled and dressed in the latest imported creations, wore masks and engaged in the same acts as the majority of their fellow citizens. Rome seemed happy to turn a blind eye as long as Venice continued to make generous donations.

The Serene Republic fell into a state of luxury, indolence, and moral decay. Eventually, wearing masks was banned in daily life and limited only to certain months of the year. During the last year of the Republic, this period extended for only three months, from 26 December to Shrove Tuesday.

Carnival Masks

The Bauta or baùtta is a simple, white mask with a square jawline that projects out over the mouth. This allowed the wearer to talk, eat and drink easily, as well as distorting the wearer’s voice, preserving anonymity.

It is part of a whole costume, worn with a red tricorn hat and a cape, that would entirely hide the wearer’s identity, so that women could enter male-dominated settings and the poor could mix with nobles at fancy dress parties. It was not allowed to wear weapons along with the mask, and police had the right to enforce this.

In the 18th century, this became a standard mask for political decision-making events, to guarantee anonymity when taking part in ballots. Only citizens of Venice had the right to use the Bauta. Its role was like the anonymising processes in modern democracies guaranteeing free, equal and secret ballots.

The volto or larva, a variation on this mask, covers the entire face, including the mouth. It is thought the word larva comes from the Latin meaning ‘mask’ or ‘ghost.’

This mask is mainly white, and it is worn with a tricorn hat and a cloak. Like the bauta, its shape allowed the wearer to breathe, drink, and speak easily without removing the mask. These masks were made of fine wax cloth and so they were light and comfortable to wear, making them ideal for a night of socialising and dancing.

The Medico della peste or ‘plague doctor’s mask,’ with its long beak, is, perhaps, the most bizarre and recognisable Venetian mask. It is usually worn with a long black coat, white gloves, and a staff to complete the plague doctor uniform.

The plague ravaged Venice many times, and this beaked mask was used as a sanitary precaution by doctors. The design originates with a 17th century French physician, Charles de Lorme, who adopted the mask with other sanitary precautions while treating plague victims.

The mask is white with a hollow beak and round eye holes covered with crystal discs, creating a bespectacled effect. The long nose held herbs and flowers that filtered the air and disguised the smell of plague victims.

Doctors who followed de Lorme’s example wore the usual black hat and long black cloak as well as the mask, white gloves and a stick – to move patients yet avoid physical contact. Today, the masks are often more decorative.

The Moretta is a black strapless mask with a perfect oval shape and holes only for the eyes. It was usually worn by women, and it was held in place by the wearer biting on a button on the inside, so the wearer had to remove the mask to speak. It did not entirely hide the wearer’s face, but it limited her social interaction in a way that created an aura of mystery about her.

It was popular in Venice because it enhanced features such as the female head, body and mind, and it was worn with a veil. This mask has not been widely worn since 1760.

Cats were so scarce in Venice that they became the subject of one of the most typical masks. Legend has it that a man who owned nothing but his old cat came to Venice from China. The cat rid the palace of all its mice and the man became rich. When he went back home, his rich neighbour was green with envy and rushed to Venice with his most precious silks, thinking that if a mere cat made the other man rich, he would be enormously rewarded for these precious items. Indeed, the Doge promised him his most precious possession in return for his gifts ... and the neighbour went home with the cat.

There are intriguing stories behind the Gnaga or cat mask, part of a costume worn by men disguising themselves as women. The costume also required the wearer to carry a basket filled with little kittens and to mock passers-by with coarse language. At the time, homosexuality was punishable by death, but this mask created a small loophole in the laws of Venice.

However, female prostitutes complained about a decline in their business because of the popularity of the gnaghe with their client base. They appealed to Bishop Antonio Contarini, and he allowed prostitutes to lean out of their windows displaying their bare breasts – a practice that gave Venice placenames such as Ponte delle Tette and Fondamenta delle Tette.

Commedia dell’arte masks

These masks date back to the second half of the 16th century and represent characters, ethnic traditions, professions and trades closely tied to different Italian cities played by professional actors in the Commedia dell’Arte.

This form of improvised theatre began in the 16th century and was popular until the 18th century, although it is still performed today. Travelling teams of players would set up an outdoor stage and provide amusement in the form of juggling, acrobatics, and humorous plays based on a repertoire of established characters with a rough storyline, known as Canovaccio.

Troupes occasionally performed directly from the back of their traveling wagon. Male characters were played by actors wearing masks representing regions or towns. The female characters were usually not masked, and their roles were often played by men in women’s clothing and wigs.

The Colombina covers only half the face, and is either tied with a ribbon or held up with a baton. The Colombina, also known as Columbine and Columbino, is often highly decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers.

This mask is named after the principal character in the Commedia dell’arte, and it is sometimes also called arlecchina. Colombina was a servant, but she was often the most clever person on stage. It was designed for her because she did not wish to have her beautiful face covered completely.

The Arlecchino (‘harlequin’) is the male counterpart of the arlecchina. He typically wears a half-mask with a short nose and wide, arching eyebrows. His character is a comic servant, dressed in clothes full of patches and rags that evolved into the colourful, diamond-shaped patterns associated with harlequins today.

The name may come from Dante’s Commedia, in which one of the devils is called Alichino.

Pulcinella is a poor hunchback man who is always down on his luck, sometimes drunk, and always getting into trouble. The mask has a crooked, beak-like nose, typically worn with a long white coat and straggly hair. He is associated with Naples and he became the model for Punch in the Punch and Judy puppet theatres in England.

Pantalone is an old man whose mask has a beaked nose and heavy eyebrows. He is usually a shopkeeper from the city, fond of food and pretty women, miserly, gullible, and the butt of all the jokes.

Pierrot is a beloved character in Commedia dell’arte, in French theatre and in modernist art circles. He represents the sad clown who usually pines for Colombina, though she will inevitably break his heart. He wears a white tunic that has wide sleeves and legs, and his mask is also painted white, sometimes with a black tear.

Brighella is a cunning and mischievous servant associated with Bergamo.

La Ruffiana is an old woman who is usually a mother or gossipy townswoman who intrudes into the lives of the Lovers.

Scaramuccia, known in French as Scaramouche, is a roguish adventurer and swordsman who replaced Il Capitano in later troupes.

Today, Venetian masks have found a new place as the emblem of Carnevale or the Venetian Carnival.

The Venetian Carnival was officially reintroduced in 1979. The modern celebration of Carnival has reinvigorated the art and craft of making masks. These Venetian masks continue to dazzle tourists, not only during Carnival but throughout the year round.

Photographs: Patrick Comerford, Venice, 2018

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