A Venetian Masks original function was used to disguise the wearers identity so that they could be whoever they wanted to be and to do whatever they wanted to do. A poor man had the opportunity to be a nobleman for the day or a woman could be a man, and vice versa.
The tradition goes back as far as the 12th century where it was thought to be a response to the rigid class structures in Europe at that time. Eventually the wearing of masks became restricted by the government to just the carnival season. Due to the anonymity, people were able to get up close to ones that they despised that they could even kill them.
Venice sees many types of masks ranging from simple to highly decorative pieces of art. When it comes to Venetian masks, they generally fall into two categories, traditional masks worn during carnival season and Commedia dell’arte character masks.
Here is a rundown of some of the popular carnival masks.
The bauta is a simple white mask that has a square jawline which projects over the mouth. These masks were great in that it still allowed the wearer to eat and drink without the need to take it off. As well as disguising their identity they also distorted the wearers voice. The mask was often seen accompanied by a black tricorn hat and a cape.
Medical della peste
During the plague doctors would wear this beaked mask as a sanitary precaution. The long beak would hold various herbs and flowers that were thought to filter the air and cover up any horrible smells from the plague victims. This mask would have been seen with a long black coat, white gloves and a staff.
This mask is a perfect oval shape without any straps, with just holes for eyes. These masks were often seen worn by women and stayed on the face by biting a button on the inside. This meant that if the wearer wanted to talk, they would in fact have to remove the mask before doing so. The aim of this mask would have been to create mystery as the mask didn’t fully cover the wearers identity.
This cat shaped mask was part of a costume that was often worn by men who wanted to disguise themselves as women – the original drag queen of Venice. The costume also included a basket that was filled with little kittens whilst mocking passers by with offensive language. In those times homosexuality was punishable by death but wearing this mask was part of a small loophole in Venice’s laws. Whoever wore a mask had to act in accordance with it meaning male wearers could enact heterosexual relationships with other men.
During this time, female prostitutes saw a decline in business due to the popularity of the Gnaghe with their clients. So, they appealed to the bishop, who counteracted the appeal of masks by allowing prostitutes to lean out of their windows with their breasts on display, leaving us with interesting names such as Ponte delle Tette (bridge of breasts) and Fondamaneta delle tette (Street of breasts).