In the 13th century,at the streets of Venice, people had a need to create something Wow. Something beyond everyday life. Something that symbolizes freedom in physical, mental and spiritual senses. Something breaking-free from the cultural norms and regulations.
I believe that many of the classic writers were inspired by the mystical atmosphere of masquerade. Venice is enough by itself magic, but in the 13th Venice century, with faces covered with Venetian masks…
The mysterious Venetian mask – The lure of forbidden
The Venetian mask offered a way for some people to poke fun, sensualists to seduce women, gamblers to engage in activities without ever being caught. Women in exquisite gowns and men clad in clever disguises.
There is very little evidence explaining the motive for the earliest mask wearing in Venice.
The first documented sources mentioning the use of masks in Venice can be found as far back as the 13th century. The Great Council made it a crime to throw scented eggs. The document decrees that masked persons were forbidden to gamble.
Near the end of the Republic, the wearing of masks in daily life was severely restricted. By the 18th century, it was limited only to about three months from December 26. The masks were traditionally worn with decorative beads matching in color.
Venice Carnival – the perfect scenery for passionate love affairs in the 18th century
Finally in 1608, the Venetian Council passed on an act that insists on wearing masks only at the Carnival, dinner parties, significant events and celebrations. Besides, masks were the solution for perfect disguise. Wearing masks let women to mingle with male crowds without revealing their true identities. Mask-wearing created a sense of pseudo-equality among civilians. No one could segregate the rich from the poor during carnivals in Italy. Venetian Carnival masks played a significant role in the life of the world-famous womanizer, Casanova.
It is said that the Carnival of Venice was started from a victory of the Repubblica della Serenissima, Venice’s previous name, against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico in the year 1162. In the honor of this victory, the people started to dance and make reunions in San Marco Square. Apparently, this festival started on that period and become official in the renaissance. The festival declined during the 18th century.
Masks – main feature of the Venetian carnival
Venetian masks can be made in leather, porcelain or with the original glass technique. The original masks were rather simple in design, decoration, and often had a symbolic and practical function. Nowadays, most of them are made with the application of gesso and gold leaf and are all hand-painted using natural feathers and gems to decorate.
The Carnival of Venice today
Today, this festival pulls in thousands of spectators; a tradition that casts its spell on whoever crosses its path; a gala that celebrates the spirit of humans is none other than the Venice Carnival. Escape from the mundane everyday life and get drowned in the fantasy of this amazing festival!
‘Mascareri’ and their assistants ‘Targheri’
The mascherari (or mask-makers) had their own statute dated 10 April 1436. They belonged to the fringe of painters and were helped in their task by sign-painters who drew faces onto plaster in a range of different shapes and paying extreme attention to detail. Venetian masks are made from clay molds. Craftsmen start by putting clay inside a wooden box with the model mask and overturn the plaster. This procedure results in a hollow plaster which will later be covered paper mache and adorned with intricate details. Mask-making requires undivided attention, patience and skills.
Types of masks
There are so many types of masks such as Bauta, Larva, Moretta, Mute, Zanni, Pulcinella, Baroque and many more.
Bauta (sometimes referred as baùtta) is a mask which covers the whole face; this was a traditional piece of art, with a stubborn chin line, no mouth and lots of gilding. The mask has a square jaw line often pointed and tilted upwards to enable the wearer to talk, eat and drink easily without having to remove the mask, thereby preserving their anonymity. The Bauta was often accompanied by a red cape and a tricorn.
In 18th century, together with a black cape called “Tabarro”, the Bauta had become a standardized society mask and disguise regulated by the Venetian government. It was obligatory to wear it at certain political decision-making events when all citizens were required to act anonymously as peers. Only citizens had the right to use the Bauta. Its role was similar to the anonymizing processes invented to guarantee general, direct, free, equal and secret ballots in modern democracies. People were not allowed to wear weapons along with the mask, and police had the right to enforce this ruling.
The Columbina (also known as Columbine and Columbino) is a half-mask, often highly decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers. It is held up to the face by a baton or tied with ribbon as with most other Venetian masks. The columbine was popularised by an early actress in the Commedia dell arte of the same name. It is said it was designed for her because she did not wish to have her beautiful face covered completely.
Medico della Peste (The Plague Doctor)
The Medico della Peste, with its long beak, is one of the most bizarre and recognisable of the Venetian masks. The striking design has a macabre history, originating from 17th-century French physician Charles de Lorme, who adopted the mask together with other sanitary precautions. The mask is white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eyeholes covered with crystal discs, creating a bespectacled effect.
Today, the masks are often more decorative. The plague 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 without having to come into physical contact). They hoped these precautions would prevent them contracting the disease.
The Moretta (or Servetta Muta) was a strapless oval mask with wide eyeholes, worn by patrician women. The mask was held in place by the wearer biting on a button or bit and was finished off with a veil. Servetta Muta translates as “mute maid servant”. This mask has not been widely worn since 1760.
The larva, also called the volto mask, is mainly white and typically Venetian. It is worn with a tricorn and cloak. It is thought the word “larva” comes from the Latin, meaning “mask” or “ghost”. Like the bauta, the shape of the mask allowed the wearer to breathe, drink and speak easily without having to remove the mask. These masks were made of fine wax cloth, and so were light and comfortable to wear, making them ideal for a night of socializing and dancing.
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