Origin and history of Venetian masks

Venetian masks

Are you wondering what Carnival is like in Italy? If so, today you will learn more about the history of Venetian masks and their most important characteristics.

Carnival is undoubtedly one of the favourite celebrations of many people, with many of them deciding to travel to different parts of the world to see and enjoy this celebration.

In Italy, more specifically in Venice, one of the most famous and renowned Carnivals is celebrated every year.

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As you may know, the masks in Venice are distinguished and differentiated from other Carnivals celebrated around the world.

But what is the history of Carnival and what is the origin behind each of these Venetian masks?

HISTORY OF CARNIVAL

While the origin of Carnival is uncertain, many scholars believe that the festival dates back to the Roman Empire due to its close relationship with the Saturnalia. These were festivals to worship and honour the god Saturn.

Another version tells us that it is located in Greece, as there were similar festivities with processions and plays, but instead, they were held in honour of Dionysus and other representative characters of ancient Greece.

Regardless of where Carnival originated, it is certain that this celebration took place in February. This month is the time of transition from winter to spring and so these rites, feasts, and celebrations brought with them purification.

It was believed that offerings and rites would help the god Saturn to stop wandering the earth so that the summer harvest could begin and bring abundance.

This is the origin of these festivities with beautiful dresses, banquets, and masks that resembled the personification of the god.

Also, it was very noticeable that people of high power put aside – only during these days – all their obligations and social status to participate in these festivities.

With the spread of Christianity, this festivity took on the name of “carnival” – or “carnevale” from the Italian – a word that comes from the phrase “carnem levare“, meaning “to take away the flesh“. This Carnival was celebrated before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent until Easter Sunday).

Knowing that fasting and abstinence had to be observed, days before this event took place, where everything was allowed and, to safeguard their identities, people covered their faces with masks or disguised themselves.

HISTORY OF ITALIAN CARNIVAL MASKS

As we mentioned before, it is believed that this festivity started in the Roman Empire celebrating the beginning of spring to venerate the god Saturn.

This event was characterised by a complete disregard for hierarchy and social obligations.

One of the most important things for these feasts were the masks, whose purpose was to hide the identity of the wearer, since in these types of events both slaves, people of low income, and people of renown (lower and upper classes) participated.

From there, the use of Venetian masks would become a symbol that would prevail over the years.

DO YOU KNOW THE VENICE CARNIVAL?

The Venice Carnival – Carnevale di Venezia – is one of the most famous Carnivals in the world with an interesting history. Did you know that Napoleon abolished it?

This event was declared a festival in 1292 where traditions, costumes, celebrations, and anonymity were important for the sake of having a good time.

However, in Napoleon’s time, it was banned to avoid trouble, but this ended in 1979.

From the latter date, it started to become popular in different parts of Europe and later in the Americas. Because of this, many people became interested in this and visited Italy to see firsthand the Venice Carnival costumes.

That said, let’s explain a bit about these masks below.

VENETIAN MASKS

Carnival masks in Italy are a symbol of the Italian Carnival festivities as they have been a part of Italian culture and history throughout its history. They are extremely ancient and date back to Roman times but became popular around the 18th century.

Venetian masks are seen in plays, and official and traditional festivals at all times of the year, however, they are most notable at carnivals.

The purpose of these masks was to guarantee the wearer’s anonymity so that aristocrats could mingle with common people to participate in parties and even go on romantic dates.

These masks were also accompanied by costumes, and now in costumes inspired by the Commedia dell’arte, in which the characters were masked and in colourful costumes.

Carnival masks used to be elaborately handmade. Nowadays, some are still made by hand, and different materials are used to highlight the characteristics of a particular character or mask.

CHARACTERS OF THE ITALIAN CARNIVAL

Some of the representative characters who wore masks during the Italian Carnival are the following: 

HARLEQUIN (ARLECCHINO)

This is one of the most important characters in Venice Carnival, originally from the city of Bergamo.

He is known as a character who brings more joy to people as he is extremely cunning and mischievous. His name comes from the German Höllenkönig (or King of Hell), then changes to Helleking, and finally ends in the word “Harlequin“.

The costume of this character has patches, and different coloured rags and is associated with demons.

COLOMBINA (COLUMBINA)

The Colombina – or “little dove” in Italian – originates from the city of Venice, and has an interesting history as the girlfriend of the Harlequin – a cunning and mischievous character.

Basically, the Colombina is the polar opposite of this previous character whose personality is clever and a bit spicy and cheeky.

Considering that the little dove is a servant, she naturally has a great devotion to her mistress Rosaura, and helps her in everything she can, especially in her love affairs or flirtations.

PULCINELLA

This character represents the irony and insolence of the human being. He is extremely witty and whenever he can, he makes fun of people in power.

BAUTA

The Bauta is one of the most famous and requested masks among the Venice Carnival costumes.

This type of mask has the particularity of its versatility in use as it can be used by both men and women.

This mask is often used also in parties and theatre not related to the Carnival. The Bauta usually represents mystery, intrigue, and secrets.

MORETTA

Only for female use and exclusively for women, this mask is different from many others as it is completely dark or black with a button that allows the woman wearing it to hold the mask with her lips.

The dark and mute mask did not allow the woman to speak, eat, or even drink.

OTHER VENETIAN MASKS IMPORTANT TO MENTION

DOTTORE PLAGUE

Mask originally used by the doctors who treated the plague can be seen in Italian carnivals due to its particular shape of pointed nose that resembles a somewhat gloomy bird.

PANTALONE

He is known as a wealthy and greedy merchant. His costume consisted of red stockings, a black cloak and he carries a lot of gold.

BRIGHELLA

Cunning and shrewd, this character happens to be Harlequin’s best friend. As his name suggests, this character does not know how to lie and only brings “trouble” or “quarrels”.

enjoy carnival

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