The masks worn during the Venetian Carnival have not only been around since the 1600s, but they are also known as some of the most elegant Venetian masks in the world. That’s because they’re made by hand, with natural materials such as porcelain and silk, by artisans who have honed their craft through generations of learning new techniques and mastering old ones. But where did these masks come from?
A Short History of Venice
Venice, known for its canals and crumbling architecture, began as a settlement along the Italian coast. Originally named Ursa Major, after the constellation that shined brightly on the day it was founded, it quickly became home to one of the most vibrant mercantile communities in all of Europe. But beneath Venice’s beauty lies a history fraught with plague, fire and watery disasters.
Long before Venice was settled by people from Padua around 600 BC it had been home to marshlands inhabited by dense forests full of game. In around 42 BC Roman emperor Claudius decided he wanted to build a city where merchants could trade their goods without traveling all the way to Rome.
Etymology – The word masquerade derives from the Italian maschera, meaning mask. Contrary to popular belief, the use of masks in Venice is not the origin of its modern masquerade-style masked balls. It is thought that even before its popularity in Venice, masks were worn by those participating in religious processions to cover their faces and help them engage with fellow worshippers. These masks eventually became secularized as dancers began disguising themselves with a mask at events held for court members.
Late Medieval Times
Late Medieval Era masks, typically found in Venice and other Italy cities, are associated with the Commedia dell’arte theatre tradition.
Italians used to wear these masks because they didn’t want to show their true identity while they were participating in this popular style of entertainment. They would change their masks as quickly as possible when the play was over so that no one would know who they were!
Post Renaissance Times
This beautiful tradition first took hold in the 14th century during the plague that killed tens of millions. The masks were designed to protect against disease. When people began seeing masks, they felt less afraid and would often kiss under the masks. It became a symbol for happiness, health, and celebrating love. The masks take on many different forms but typically have a beak like nose and stand at least 18 inches tall. In addition to wearing them in public as a form of protection from sickness or injury, they are traditionally worn at Carnival in Venice, Italy–the only location in the world where this is allowed by law. Today their design has evolved considerably with decorations including feathers and diamonds among other materials embellishing them to show wealth or status which was not common before Renaissance times.
The traditional Venetian mask was first adopted as a fashion statement by noblewomen during the 18th century. Made from silk, lace and gold leaf, these masks became popular because they allowed aristocratic women to go about town without having to expose their faces. But it wasn’t until 1755 that Carlo Monti began producing metal masks with long noses and beaks that were designed for men who wanted to hide their identities at carnival. These types of masks were typically made out of silver or copper and could cost up to 100 times more than those made for women.
Modern Mask Times
In this day and age, people wear masks to protect their identity, to make a statement, or to simply have fun. As an art form that dates back nearly 3000 years, masks were traditionally created from paper mache, plaster and canvas. The design is usually painted on the surface of the mask with acrylic paint. In earlier times, masks often denoted wealth by being intricately carved from precious materials like ivory or tortoise shell.