Masquerade Mask History

Masquerade Masks from Venice
Masquerade Masks from Venice

Around the time that Julius Caesar was romancing Cleopatra, Egypt observed a Pagan Festival in honor of the coming harvest. We believe masks originated from this fiesta.

The Roman forces delighted in bringing exotic treasures and customs back to Italy…..and so the custom migrated to Italy.

History of Venetian Masks

The Pagan festival was popular amongst the Italians but was out of step with Christian beliefs. Therefore, 1500 years ago the Pope of the time declared that the festival would become a Christian festival. Carnevale is an indulgence lasting 14 days immediately preceding the abstinence of lent.

The name Carnevale (Carne/meat) implies an abstinence from meat which is likely during the time of fasting.

The Mask Makers Guild was formed in 1436 and masks flourished.

Although Carnevale lasted for only 2 weeks, masks became increasingly popular during other times of the year.

The mask allowed Venetians freedom to enjoy their life, free from the recognition and judgment of others. Both wealthy and poor reveled in masquerade as they were not restricted by class or marital status when in disguise.

The Plague in Venice

The plague came to Venice several times and survivors were left with unsightly scars on their faces. The mask hid these scars and became a routine fashion accessory with specific styles coming into vogue.

The “Doctor of the Pestilence” wore a long cloak and a white mask with a bird like beak. This mask always had glasses painted onto it to symbolize education. Within the cavity of the beak the doctor would insert disinfectant fragrant herbs that assisted in disguising the stench of death.

He would lift the bed covers with a long stick and make his assessment of the patient.

The population had a superstitious view of the plague. The Doctor chose a bird mask to frighten off the evil affliction. Little was done for the unlucky patient who was sealed off behind doors that were nailed shut and left to die.

The “lucky ones” who were given medical treatment were bled with the aid of leaches – it is unclear whether this treatment actually helped.

Moretta Mask

A simple oval Moretta mask worn by women of all social classes before they were married.

It stayed in place by use of a button on the back of the mask which was held into place by the clenched teeth of the young woman who wore it.

This rendered her silent, mysterious and most alluring as she meandered through the watery labyrinth of Venice. After the wedding a different mask would be chosen, enabling the lady to express herself. Many a young groom would find his wife somewhat different to the maiden he married.

Unisex Bauta Mask

In Venice the most popular mask was the “Bauta” which was accepted as the mask of the Veneto region and worn by men and women.

A long black cloak and a Bauta mask were the ultimate disguise. The prominent jaw disguised the voice. The gender of the wearer was well hidden behind the cloak and his or her features were hidden behind the mask.

The Bauta’s fierce expression added drama and intrigue but also made the wearer look powerful. Those who wore the “Bauta” were dashing as the cape flowed behind them and the tricorn hat added to their stature. Casanova himself would have worn this costume and for this reason today the Bauta is also called Casanova.

So Many More Masks

Various “Commedia Dell’ Arte” (ancient theatre) masks are worn including “Pulchinello, Zane, Capitano, Scaramouche and Arlecchino”.

The “Gnaga” was popular amongst the effeminate gentlemen who were prone to a high pitch voice. At a time when homosexuality was forbidden but dalliances were frequent, the mask was a valuable tool of disguise.

It is believed that Gnaga comes from the word “gnau” or the meow of the cat which many of its wearers’ speech resembled. The Venetian saying is “to have a voice like a gnaga” which refers to both men and women with a high pitched voice. This is contrary to the deep, emphatic and melodic voices of the modern Venetian citizens.

The Spanish Inquisition was a challenging time when Casanova was active winning the favors of many ladies.

Masks Banned

Casanova is recognized as the western world’s most famous “lover” and was imprisoned for what was considered debauchery. He made a daring escape and in spite of his great talent and education was not able to return to Venice. His memoirs make interesting reading and give valuable insight to the lifestyle of the time.

During the Spanish Inquisition, the wearing of masks was declared illegal but it was difficult to police. Thus the mask survived until Napoleon conquered the Province. He was threatened by the revelry and the anonymity of the mask and successfully banned it.

Rebirth of Masks

Italian Artisan Making Venetian Masks

For hundreds of years Carnivale took place without masks however in 1978 an artisan decided to make some masks for his family.

They were greeted with so much enthusiasm that the following year he organized masks to be made by the art students of the Academia who needed to supplement their income.

I have met Victor Fagarassi, the father of modern masks in Venice and confirm it was a privilege to enjoy his company. We have sold his masks, however he has since retired.

An Evolving Art Form

In modern times masks have evolved into Amazon Warrior, Pierrot and Phantom of the Opera. Venetian masks are often decorated with music paper as Venice is a city of music There are pretty ceramic imitations of the life size masks that make sweet mementos for the modern tourist.

Papier mache masks have been replaced by something less work intensive.

Cat Masks

Cat Mask

The “Cat” is popular in Venice not only because of its endearing nature but its flexibility to cohabitate with humans in the densely populated apartments of the ancient city. Happy to live on the fifth floor with only a window to link them to the outdoors…. the domestic cat is much loved in Venice.

Cleopatra gifted cats to Julius Caesar as something sacred and precious which is how they came to Europe. Most necessary to protect valuable grain stores. Cats proved to be indispensable by assisting in plague management.

Modern Cat masks can be worn with Swarovski crystals, glitter and elaborate eye lashes. The artisan will usually draw a heart on the nose of a cat mask.

Filigree Masks – Metal Lace

Currently the height of fashion is the filigree lace mask which is powder coated black, gold or silver plate. Metal masks take many forms including cat, phoenix, angel and fox. They are romantic, whimsical and pure fantasy. Metal masks are light and quite comfortable to wear. They are slightly flexible and the Italian made ones contour the face very well.

A most dramatic effect can be achieved as a metal mask does not dominate the wearer but embellishes her as if it were a piece of jewelry.

For more Masquerade Mask Information please visit our blog.