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. Many of the masks we see today though, were actually taken from the Commedia dell’Arte which was a professional theater production in the 16th to 18th centuries. Walking around Venice nowadays, you’ll see many types of masks that mainly fall into two categories: the traditional masks worn during Carnival, and the Commedia dell’arte character masks. Here I have detailed some of my favorites – let me know your favorite in the comments!
One of my favorite masks is the cat mask, or Gnaga. I like it because for me, it’s one of the most interesting stories in Venetian history. 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.
This is a simple, white mask with a square jawline that projects out over the mouth. This allowed the wearer to eat and drink, as well as having the effect of distorting the wearer’s voice. It is part of a whole costume, worn with a tricorn hat and a cape, that would entirely hide the wearer’s identity, so that women could enter male-dominated settings and the poor could mix with nobles at fancy parties. In the 18th century, it actually became a standardized mask for political decision-making events as it guaranteed anonymity when participating in voting.
Medico della Peste
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.
This black strapless mask is a perfect oval shape with holes only for the eyes, and was usually worn by women. It’s held in place by the wearer biting on a button on the inside, so the person wouldn’t be able to speak without removing the mask. It didn’t entirely hide the wearer’s face, but it did limit his or her social interaction in an interesting way, since the wearer never mumbled a word, creating an aura of mystery around whoever wore it.
Colombina / Arlecchina
This mask is probably one of the most popular today with tourists. It covers only half the face, and is either tied with a ribbon or held up with a baton. Named after the character in the Commedia dell’arte, it is sometimes also called arlecchina. She was a servant, but often the cleverest person onstage.
The arlecchino, or harlequin, is the male counterpart of the arlecchina. He typically wears a half-mask with a short nose and wide, arching eyebrows. His character is a comic servant, dressed in clothes full of patches and rags that evolved into the colorful patterns we associate with the term harlequins today.
This character is a poor hunchback man who’s always getting into trouble, down on his luck, and often drunk. The mask has a beak-like nose, typically worn with a long white coat and scraggly hair.
Pantalone is an old man whose mask has a beaked nose but is distinguishing feature is his heavy eyebrows. He is usually a shopkeeper from the city, with a weakness for food and pretty women. He’s considered a of a scrooge, is very gullible, and always the butt of the jokes.
This character has a beloved history not just in Commedia dell’arte, but also in French theater and modernist art circles. He represents the sad clown, who usually pines for Colombina, though she will inevitably break his heart. He wears a white tunic that has wide sleeves and legs, and his mask is also painted white, sometimes with a black tear.
Have you been to Venice and seen these masks? Which would you wear? Tell me in the comments below!