Venitian mask wearing is a tradition which goes back as far as the 12th century, and historians speculate that it was a response to one of the most rigid class structures in all of Europe. Masks gave the wearer certain freedoms they wouldn’t have had normally. Women could become men, men women, and while wearing a mask, anything could go. Eventually the wearing of masks (and flagrantly ignoring certain laws) was so ubiquitous that the government had to pass a law restricting mask wearing to the Carnival season. Walking around Venice nowadays, you’ll see many types of masks. Some are simple and some are works of art that take months to create. Still to this day, the masks mainly fall into two categories: the traditional masks worn during Carnival, and the Commedia dell’arte character masks.
The most common masks of Venice have names, but without pictures, describing it here on a podcast might be difficult so I will just touch on a couple you’ve likely seen and that I am partial to.
One is the cat mask, or Gnaga. One of the most fascinating stories in Venetian history is behind this innocent looking mask. The gnaga was part of a costume worn by men disguising themselves as women aka the original drag queens of the world. The costume also required the wearer to carry a basket filled with little kittens and to mock passers-by with coarse language. Homosexuality was punishable by death in Venice, but this mask was part of a little loophole in Venice’s laws. If you wore a mask, you had to act in accordance with the mask, which allowed male wearers to enact homosexual relationships with other men. This was great for them, however, female prostitutes saw a decline in their business due to the popularity of the Gnaghe. The prostitutes appealed to the bishop Antonio Contarini. To counteract the appeal of the masks, Contarini allowed prostitutes to lean out of their windows with their breasts on display, a practice that left us with such interesting names as Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of Breasts) and Fondamenta delle Tette (Street of Breasts) still to this day, in Venice.
Another popular mask is the beaked mask or medico della peste. The plague ravaged Venice many times, and this beaked mask was used as a sanitary precaution by doctors. The long nose would hold herbs and flowers that would filter the air and cover up the stench of death. It’s usually worn with a long black coat, white gloves, and a staff to complete the plague doctor uniform.
To learn about more masks and see their photos, head over to The Untold Stories Behind the Venetian Masks.