CARNAVAL OF VENICE: LIVING THE DREAM OF RENAISSANCE
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
Mysterious convent with cloaked figures and hidden faces, luxurious dresses and swirling affairs – the famous Carnival of Venice preserves its spirit over centuries.
The Carnival of Venice begins two weeks before Ash Wednesday (the first day of fasting) and lasts for 14 days. The event attracts approximately 3 million visitors from all over the globe.
Venetian Carnival masks are a vital part and symbol of the event. The first masks were rather simple in design and had a symbolic meaning. However as time passed they became increasingly complex.
Nowadays they are produced from leather, velvet or with the help of papiermache techniques. Feathers, natural gems, gesso and golden leafs are used today to decorate the masks. Hand craft is widely used in the industry – authentic accessories are produced and painted in the same traditional ways that the artisans used over centuries.
Craftsmen who produced the masks (the so called mascherari) had a special social status. They had their own guild and were subject to special laws – their first statute dates back to year 1436. Mascherari were often assisted by sign painters who could draw small details with great caution. Industry quickly grew to become a major source of income for the citizen of Veneto.
A beauty contest is traditionally held on the last Sunday of the festival. The most elaborate and fine crafted mask is chosen by an international jury board consisting of prominent designers.
Let’s take a peak beyond the mysterious veil and reveal the secrets of Venetian Carnival masks.
Masks were used for festive occasions long before Venice was founded. In Ancient Rome it was common for people to cover their faces during Bacchanalia events.
The first Carnival was held approximately about 1162 AD to celebrate victory against the army of Aquileia (another big city state at that time). The festival was organised annually afterwards; it was believed to protect the citizens from anguish and trouble.
Tradition was broken when Venice was conquered by the Austrian Empire at the end of the 18th century – Emperor declared convent and masks to be illegal. It reappeared shortly in the 19th century as a private event after the 6 decades of Austrian rule were over, but the carnival was later prohibited again by fascist regime in the 1930th. Event was reborn in 1978 when the government started promoting cultural heritage. A lot of effort was put to make the modern Carnival of Venice a major tourist attraction – and it turned out to be the gem of modern Italy.
WHY DID THE MASKS BECOME WIDESPREAD?
Venetian masks were primarily meant to conceal owner’s status alongside identity, to make otherwise prohibited social interactions easier without fear of public reprimand.
Republic of Venice was a wealthy city, a prosperous gem of Europe in the middle ages and during renaissance. People who lived there were mostly nobles, rich merchants, successful adventurers and artists.
At the same time the city itself didn’t offer much space for its inhabitants. Streets were so narrow that you could touch the window of the opposite house simply by stretching out your hand. Using a mask allowed a citizen to act naturally. People wanted more freedom when they were at home.
Government of Venice imposed certain restrictions that affected the casual use of masks. For instance, it was forbidden to:
• Carry a weapon while masked;
• Conceal face while gambling;
• Use masks during certain months (however, it was legal throughout most time of the year).
On the opposite, in 1776 a law was passed which required women to wear a mask and a long cloak (called ‘tabarro’) when visiting a theatre.
TYPES OF MASKS
One of the most popular accessories was the ‘Bauta’ – a full face mask that had a beak like chin which enabled the wearer to eat and drink without having to reveal his identity. It was most commonly worn with a black or red cape. The accessory was often worn for romantic encounters and everyday business, sometimes illegal. ‘Bauta’ became popular in modern pop culture thanks to stories about Kazanova.
Another mask called ‘Columbina’ covers only the top half of the face. It is said that it was invented for an actress who didn’t want to hide her beauty and insisted that at least her chin, mouth and cheeks had to be revealed.
On the opposite, ‘Moretta’ or ‘Servetta Mutta’ covered the whole face and had only wide eyeholes, it lacked any facial features. The special feature of this accessory is that the wearer wasn’t able to speak – there was no strap to attach the mask and it was held in place by biting on a button. ‘Moretta’ was meant to be worn by noble Patrician women and was often combined with a veil.
‘Arlecchino’ is a mask that represents a court trickster or other kind of servant. The character depicted with the use of this accessory is devoid of logic, lets emotions take over reasonable thinking. Specific traits of this mask include a long nose and low forehead – signs of stupidity in theatrical comedy genre.
‘Pantalone’ is the opposite of ‘Arlecchino’ and usually his master. A sad old man with high forehead and slanted eyes is the manifestation of an intelligent and experienced father.
Nowadays masks are used solely for decorative purpose but some of them had a particular (and sometimes bizarre) function when they were first introduced.
For instance, the ‘Plague Doctor’s Mask’ was meant to isolate the wearer from the ill. Its long beak was filled with aromatic tar, the mask was used with a hood and a stick to shove away patients without having to come in physical contact with them.
This accessory was actually invented in France, it’s rather popular among guests of the modern Carnival. A full set of ‘Medico Della Peste’ accessories makes a striking impression.
If you ever feel like going back in time to experience renaissance, you should definitely visit the Carnival of Venice at least once. You can purchase a mask and clothing or have a set sewn specially for you. Come up with an interesting idea and make your image outstanding!