Masks played an important role in the history of La Serenissima, the Republic of Venice and are synonymous with the Carnevale (Carnival) Festival whose roots are both religious and secular. A very orderly society, the ruling body of Venice, The Great Council had written rules on when the citizens could wear masks as early as 1339 a.d.
Masks were allowed by the Venetian Republic to be worn (1) between Santo Stefano (26 December) and Shrove Tuesday marking the beginning of Lent, (2) again on Ascension Day and (3) for the period of 5 October until Christmas.
With this number of days when one could wear a masks, the makers of the masks became important and were given their own guild in 1436 a.d.
The masks were essential in the politics of La Serenissima, for hidden behind the masks, everyone was allowed a voice, not only to voice their political points, but often to tattle on their neighbors or enemies or used to spy. Behind the masks, servants and ordinary citizens could speak their mind without fear. You might say that the masks were the original vehicle for free speech, not written into law, yet protected by the anonymous.
In the 13th Century, the Great Council made it a crime to throw eggs. Persons wearing masks were forbidden to gamble or to wear false beards. In later centuries, Women were required to wear masks at the theatre. These we known as Dama and had only holes for eyes, presumably to keep the ladies from speaking (or eating and drinking) and guaranteed complete anonymity. Worn with a scarf, it is impossible to recognize a person. Earlier, they had little straps which the lady used her teeth to hold, so for sure she wasn’t talking.
The tradition of Carnevale and the masks was lost when Venice surrendered to Napoleon and the Treaty of Campo Formio was signed in 1797. The 60 years of Austrian domination began in 1798 when Venice was handed over to the Austrians. The years that followed must have seemed dreary and unimaginative to the Venetians right up through World War I and World War II. It was not until the early 1980s when students began making masks that the tradition revived. A rebirth of a 500 year old tradition which today counts for untold millions of Euro each year in sales and for sure outdoes any costumes and masks from the early days.
Today at Carnevale you can see an unlimited variety of masks, including Gold Filigree, Leather, and Metals in addition to the classic Paper Mache. They are decorated with laces, sequins, feathers and gold or silver. There are several masks that you see repeatedly during Carnevale and for sale in all stores and whether inexpensive, made in China or hand made in the small alleyways of Venice, they are steeped in the local history.
The Bauta is probably the most common mask. It is one piece with lots of space for a large nose and to allow the wearer to eat and drink, an important consideration, without removing it and revealing your identiy. Not a good idea if you were voicing opposing view than the Great Council, or Council of Ten as the Venetians called it. It was worn by both women and men and generally with a long back cape called a “Taborro” and a 3 sided hat called a “Tricorn”.
Today the masks are ever evolving, more creative, more decorative as materials are more readily found. Imagine the limited items available in the 1500s to produce a mask. A mask maker’s laboratory is floor to ceiling lace, sequins, gold ribbons and the ever present glue gun and rivet machine.
Popular in recent years is the Vivaldi Mask which pays tribute to the city’s great Musician.And you will find these around Venice, here you see a completed mask as well as all the pieces needed to make the Vivaldi masks. Each mask must have each of these pieces placed on the mask by hand. Making masks Venetian Style is all handwork, there are no machines which can do the delicate painting, put the feathers just right or cut the holes for the eyes so they have expression.
Once the Carnival committee announces the theme for the festival, there is a mad rush to design appropriate masks. The ideas stem from artist concepts and each year there are new designs.
The production of the mask begins with the creation of a mould and a very absorbent, rather stiff paper. Once it is dry, the edges must be trimmed and the eyes cut. Then layers of paint are applied and finally the decorations. The entire process takes about 2-3 days and smells of glue and paint.