Venice Carnival and Carnival Masks

03 November 2010 Published in Veneto Itineraries
Venice Carnival Masks Venice Carnival Masks © Copyright Delicious Italy


Carnevale di Venezia 2014 by Luca Gandolfi

Turn yourself into a living piece of art for the annual Venice carnival in February. Buy a mask, put on a long cloak and wander through the early morning mists of the lagoon in mid winter. Also take lots of photos for disbelieving relatives back home. This is the best way to celebrate the carnival with the best backdrop in the world, Rio excepted.

Don't be fooled, however, by the limitless cheap carnival masks you see on sale. All have their origins in China and are not made of the traditional papier-mâché of old. There are still a handful of genuine mask makers in the city, but they no longer represent the majority of products on general sale. You have to ask for a mask made of 'cartapesta' and also view the links to Marega and Mondo Novo below.


Venetian Masks

It's not known exactly when the Venetians began to adopt the use of masks. What we do know is that an eighteenth century law allowed their use for about eight months a year. It seems this was a democratic measure allowing all Venetians to interact in a Republic still dominated by the rights of aristocratic class. So, what face did people put on as they headed to the Rialto market for their daily groceries?

The Bauta hid the eyes and nose leaving the mouth visible. In this way it didn't need removing to eat and drink. Both men and women who wore them from at least the 13th century. Some say the name comes German word meaning 'protect.' A modern version might be the protest 'Anonymous' mask.

The Moretta or Muta was a black mask worn only by women and which covered the central part of the face leaving the cheeks bare. The black color was designed to enhance both the fairness of the wearer and her neckline. So how ws it kept in place? Via a mouth piece on the inside to talk which also kept the wearer from speaking.

The Mattaccino was more a colorful costume and full disguise. It allowed the wearer to get up to minor mischief and we imagine very visible during Carnival. Less colourful and deadly serious is the most striking mask of all; the 'Plague Doctor' with its famous beak (our image above). Its dates from the 16th century and was designed by a French physician to allow doctors to treat plague victims. The long beak was filled with aromatic herbs while the black cloak coveredthe rest of the body.

History of Carnival in Venice

The theatrical nature of the Venice carnival dates back to the start of the 14th century when a group of well-to-do noblemen opened up areas for organized games and spectacles. They were called "Compagnie di Calza" and quickly became known for their exuberance and fantasy.

The masked man soon made an appearance and would 'merry make' much to the amusement of all concerned. They became genuine expressions of popular culture and celebration with one foot firmly in the theater and the other in the life of the streets. 

During Carnival the city also hosts other more formal events such a classical concerts and theater performances. The carnival in Venice, masquerade balls and gala dinners have been organised since 1995 by the Club Culturale Italiano.

Dan Hostetler adds

The Venice Carnival starts on the first Friday of February and usually ends on third Tuesday of the month. It is ten days of wild, raging fun as an almost never-ending sequence of cultural events mix with jugglers, mimes, fire-eaters, acrobats, street actors and curious visitors during the most famous Carnival in Italy. The city is literally transformed into a colorful stage full of living masks and costumes. It all begins with the Children's' Carnival in Piazza San Marco, the main square. Masked balls and music shows follow. On Saturday there is the famous masked vogata on the Grand Canal, followed by a popular street party in the Canaregio district where there is usually a masked ball. On Sunday, anticipation builds all morning in San Marco Square while residents and visitors pack the piazza awaiting the symbolic release of a dove and applause erupts spontaneously upon its departure (the dove is actually mechanical and follows a wire to simulate flight while dropping confetti over the crowds). On Shrove Tuesday, at midnight, the local mask Pantalon is burned after the final dance ball. Having attended this Carnival several times, I must comment that the spirit of Carnival is everywhere and ever-present during this period. From early morning to late evening there are couples and groups of elaborately costumed characters that slowly walk and pose for photographers. The creativity and expense that these people spare is none in order to be originally costumed, convincing and, ultimately, elegant. They seem to be possessed by their costumes as they slowly float to and fro. The experience of being in Venice during this magical and mysterious period will be a memory that will last you a lifetime.

SUGGESTED VENICE CARNIVAL LINKS - Atelier Marega - artisan mask maker and museum - masks for hire - Costume events during Carnival