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Carnival of Venice
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Carnival of Venice was first recorded in 1268. The subversive nature of the festival is reflected in the many laws created over the centuries in Italy attempting to restrict celebrations and often banning the wearing of masks.

Masks have always been a central feature of the Venetian carnival; traditionally people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen's Day, December 26) at the start of the carnival season and midnight of Shrove Tuesday.

As masks were also allowed during Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas, people could spend a large proportion of the year in disguise.  

In 1797 Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio. The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798 and it fell into a decline which also effectively brought carnival celebrations to a halt for many years. It was not until a modern mask shop was founded in the 1970s that a revival of old traditions began.

Carnival starts on February 2nd and ends on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday.

Maskmakers (mascareri) enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild.  The masks are made with the original papier-mâché technique from when it began in the 12th century. Many of them are made with the application of gesso and gold leaf and are all hand-painted using natural feathers and gems to decorate.

They belonged to the fringe of painters and were helped in their task by sign-painters who drew faces onto plaster in a range of different shapes and paying extreme attention to detail

Venetian masks have a long history of protecting their wearer's identity during promiscuous or decadent activities.  Made for centuries in Venice, these distinctive masks were formed from papier-mâché and wildly decorated with fur, fabric, gems, or ribbons. Eventually, Venetian masks re-emerged as the emblem of Carnevale, a pageant and street fair celebrating hedonism.

Venetian masks emerged in a climate of cultural and religious repression during the Medieval era in Italy. People donned the colorful masks to free themselves from judging neighbors, all of whom knew each other in such a small city. The gentry class and peasants alike sought anonymity for promiscuity, gambling, and other indiscretions. Even the clergy were known to dress up to go dancing.

After the 1100s, the masquerade went through periods of being outlawed by the Catholic Church, especially during holy days. Their policy lead to eventual acceptance when they declared the months between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday free for Venetian mask-attired decadence. This period evolved into Carnevale, the pre-Lent celebration meaning, "remove meat." Although Carnevale lost popularity as Venice's cultural production faltered during the Enlightenment, it was officially reintroduced in 1979.

The modern celebration of Carnevale has reinvigorated the art and craft of making Venetian masks. The traditional method involves sculpting a form out of clay as a base for the mask. Most masks are made from papier-mâché, a sticky paste made from paper strips and glue. This plaster material is layered over the base, dries, and gets removed to form the basic mask. The fun part comes when the craftsperson paints designs in gold, silver, royal purple, sunny yellow, and other bright colors. Further decorations include sequins, silk ribbons, exotic bird feathers, faux fur, rhinestones, leather, gold charms, glitter, and any other outlandish trinkets.

Recognizable types of Venetian masks continue to dazzle tourists, dancers, and pageant participants during Carnevale and year round. The Bauta mask covers the whole face, with a stubborn chin line, no mouth, and lots of gilding. A half-mask with gold and silver stripes and jeweled eyes is called a Columbino that you hold up to your face with an attached stick. Other popular shapes include large, hooked noses, black and white checkered diamonds called a Harlequin pattern, and bright red, pursed lips.

Wearing Venetian masks has spread to Halloween masquerade balls and what North and South Americans call Mardi Gras, but they always carry their rich Italian history.

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