Storia delle Maschere di Carnevale

The History of Masks in Venice


The Mask: mystery, enigma and seduction. The mask is the essence of Venice. Few people know the tradition of the Venetian Mask: is a troubled history that follows that of the Serenissima Republic.

The mask (from the Arabic “mascharà”, ridicule, satire) has always been, since the dawn of time, one of the characteristic and essential in the behavior of the actors. Originally, it was a quarry face which looked monstrous and grotesque, worn to hide the human features, and in religious ceremonies to ward off evil spirits.
With Carnival the mask symbol of the need to indulge in the game, the joke and the illusion of the shoes of someone else, thus expressing different meanings: the party and the transgression, freedom, and immorality.



“Buongiorno Signora Maschera ” along the streets, canals and in the planks that was the greeting. Personal identity, gender, social class no longer existed and became part of the Great Illusion of Carnival in a place unique in the world, where anything can happen, where every view never ceases to enchant. In Venetian culture with the term “mask” refers to the activity of “getting beard and mustache” and “masks” was also a nickname given to women who disguised themselves as men and men dressed up as women. Soon the mask became a symbol of freedom and transgression of all the social rules imposed by the Republic of Venice…

The history of venetian mask begins in 1268, the year in which it was the oldest law restricting the misuse of the mask in this document were forbidden to men in masks, called “mattaccini”, the game of “ova” which consisted of throwing eggs filled with rose water against the ladies who were walking in the streets. The craftsmen who made masks were called “maschereri” since the time of Doge Foscari and had their own statute dated April 1436. They belonged to the fringe of painters and were helped in their profession by “targheri “ that imprinted on the painted putty faces, sometimes ridiculous appearance, in great detail. The production of masks was so intensified that in 1773 there were 12 officially mask shops in Venice a few when considering the use to which it was in those years.
 The demand for masks and their use was such that they began to manufacture many masks “in black”, giving employment to many people and allowing them to step up production and dissemination at European level. The masks were (and still are) made of paper mache and they were produced in different models in different colors and decorated with gems, fabrics and ribbons

The mask was used only during the Carnival period but on many occasions during the year, was allowed on Boxing Day (which sanctioned the start date of the Venetian Carnival) and until midnight of Shrove Tuesday (which concluded the festivities for the Carnival) was allowed during the fifteen days of the Ascension and some, with specific exceptions, used it until mid-June. In addition, during all major events such as banquets or parties of the Republic was allowed to use “Bauta” and “Tabarro”.

The  “Bauta” was used by both men and women on different occasions: it was even an obligation for married women who went to the theater while it was forbidden to girls of marriageable age. The Bauta is formed by a black veil or “Tabarro”, a black “tricorno” hat and a white mask. The white mask was called “grub”, probably from the same Latin word whose meaning is precisely mask or ghost, and allowed to eat and drink and never take it off, thus maintaining anonymity. In addition to this they used to also wear the Tabarro, a long black cloak that covered up to half a person. The “Tabarro” consisted of a cape that doubled over the shoulders, could be wool or silk according to the seasons, white or blue, scarlet for a gala occasion, sometimes decorated with frills, fringes and bow “to the military.” It was widely used by women, dark winter and white in summer.

Another widely used mask in Venice was the “Moretta”: an oval mask of black velvet that was used by women. His invention originated in France, where the ladies they used to use it to go to visit the nuns, but quickly spread in the Serenissima, particularly since graced the feminine features. The form was completed by veils and hats with a wide brim. Since initially wore holding it in the mouth thanks to a small pin, a mask blank and was therefore particularly pleasing to men.

During Carnival, the Venetians conceded transgressions of all kinds and the Bauta or Moretta were used to maintain the anonymity and allow any game prohibited both by men and by women. Even the priests and nuns took advantage of the break and making masks to hide or escape love “multas inhonestas.”

In order to limit the inexorable moral decay of Venice, La Serenissima on several occasions has legislated on Carnival and governs the use of masks and disguises.
Since the early ‘300 began to be more and more numerous the laws promulgated decrees to stop the debauchery of the inhabitants of Venice of the time and to limit the excessive use of masks.

It was forbidden to wear a mask during periods that were not those of Carnival and places of worship, as they were prohibited weapons and the shouting of the group. The use of masks was banned prostitutes and the men who went to the trouble. This is because the mask was often used to hide their identity and to solve business unclean or carry reports curious.

For example the Tabarro was often used to hide weapons and for this were issued many decrees to prevent the masks to use the mantle for purposes not exactly orthodox and especially dangerous. Those who were caught in flagrante delicto were to meet very heavy penalties: for men the penalty was two years in prison, the service for 18 months in the galleys of the Venetian Republic, the payment of 500 pounds to fund the Council of Ten.
Women, often prostitutes, who were found in the mask was whipped from Piazza San Marco to Rialto (a nice stretch of road!) Arranged in the saloon between the two columns of Piazza San Marco and were banned for four years from the territory of the Venetian Republic and they too were forced to pay 500 pounds to fund the Council of Ten.

The list of decrees goes hand in hand with that of the unfolding, the annual carnival. From time to time you add a prohibition: forbidden to travel to holy sites within the mask, masquerade in religious dress prohibited, forbidden dance in public beyond the day fixed for the celebration of the carnival. Seeing that many Venetian nobles who were going to gamble masked to avoid their creditors, in 1703, are prohibited throughout the year in reduced masks, i.e. casinos blinds. But there was another side to the coin: in 1776, a new law, this time to protect the by now forgotten “family honor”, forbade women from going to the theater without a mask.

After the fall of the Republic, the Austrian government forbade the use of masks, except for those reserved for private parties. With the beginning of Austrian rule the Carnival of Venice through a period of decline. Only during the second Austrian government was once again permitted to use masks during Carnival. The Italo-American government was more open, but this time the Venetians who were being diffident now Venice was no longer the city of carnival, but only a small imperial province without personal liberty …

Nowadays the spirit and color of the masks make Venice the capital of the Carnival for excellence. Elegance, joy and passion colored “calli”, plazas and “campielli”. Venice Carnival is the Carnival of Venice.

By Giorgia Zatta

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