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
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
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.