The masks of Venice: an ancestral tradition
For centuries, the Carnival of Venice is a key event of the Serenissima, whose fame comes mostly from its renowned masks. Harlequin, Bauta, Burano lace mask… Between illusion, fantasy and truth, these art pieces sometimes theatrical props, sometimes worship objects, are nowadays symbols of the Venetian carnival. Here is a festive immersion in one of the finest traditions of Italy, by Walter an expert local guide.
Carnival, transgression and masks of Venice: an ancient history!
Since the 6th century, the Venetians disguised themselves and enlivened their city for two months, from December 26 to “Mardi Gras”. Dances, plays, street shows, parades and various games invade the streets and jostled the social order, abolishing privileges and taboos. Hidden and disguised, everyone could have fun and do whatever one wanted in the most complete mystery.
Over the centuries, the masks were worn more and more for all occasions, breaking the rules still longer; which led the Venetian Republic to prohibit them outside holiday periods to limit the excesses of freedom. Other laws were set up: the use of masks and hairpieces in brothels became illegal, and persons who went to the casino masked to not be seen by their creditors were also banished from this place. The mask tradition then experienced some decline until the 18th century when symbolic masks appeared.
The iconic Venetian masks and their meaning
The Bauta is probably the most common mask: made of a white facade, a tricorn hat and black cape, it was worn by both men and women, allowing them to remain anonymous. Practical, it gave the opportunity to eat, drink and talk, and was widely used in the seduction scenes to obtain promises of one night stand pleasures.
The Moretta, meanwhile, was a mask worn only by women and maintained on the face thanks to a small tight hairpin between the teeth. It reinforced the mystery and prevented women from speaking (to the delight of men!).
The Gnaga is a cat-face mask covering only half of the face and worn by men wanting to dress up as women.
Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine and Punch are also famous masks part of the Commedia dell’arte, the anti-literary movement promoting improvisation.
If you have the chance to go to Venice, you will find a multitude of masks, especially during Carnival (February 18th – February 28th 2017).
Note: The authentic masks made in Venice have an inner punch and there are many manufacturing workshops producing beautiful masks covered with gold leaf, hand-painted, embroidered with beads, feathers etc... The oldest are Ca’ Macana, Schegge, and the Laboratorio Artigiano Maschere.
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