A little History about the Masks

      The masks are as old as mankind. The first mask dates back to 30.000 BC.

Masks can have several purposes: to represent emotions, to reveal or hide feelings, to hide the face of the wearer, to represent a character, and also mystical and ritualistic versions.

      In all cultures and all forms of use is undeniable the magic that it represents.

      The Venice Carnival (Italian: Carnevale di Venezia) is an annual festival held in Venice, Italy; and world famous for its elaborate masks.

      In Venice, the birth of the masks is closely linked to the Carnevale, which had its origins in the government of the Doge Vitale Faleir (1.084 – 1.096) in an official decree dated 1094. Originally the word Carnevale was associated with a chaste behavior of the penitents at the beginning of Lent, a kind of purification before the Easter rites. In 1296, the Tuesday before Lent became a holiday, making official that the popular feast.

      The Carnevale festival in Venice, however, has it’s origins in the tradition of Saturnalia, a Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, when was celebrated the revival of life and forces of nature after a harsh winter. The Medieval Carnevale Veneziano was the time when the Venetians could afford amusements prohibited at other times of the year. The masks allowed their disguise, as well as the possibility of being someone else for a few hours. Poor and rich, nobility and people mingled in a drunken and colorful joy. Anyone could go out disguised in their beautiful masks and express themselves freely, something that they could not enjoy on other occasions.

The Piazza San Marco has always been the traditional place for celebrations in Venice through the centuries.

      The party was completed by the presence of musicians, actors, juggler, comedians, puppet theater, animal trainers, as well as an enormous amount of theatrical plays and great banquets that spread throughout the city.

      At certain times, the government decided to restrict the use of masks, as it had become very frequent and, most of the time, linked to the practice of unlawful and un-Christian activities.

During the seventeenth century, Barocco Carnevale was a way to save the prestigious image of Venice in the world and had its fame widespread until the eighteenth century. Although it encouraged licentious pleasurable behavior, it was also used as protection for Venetians. Under the rule of the king of Austria, the festival was banned altogether in 1797, as well as the wearing of masks. It gradually reappeared in the nineteenth century, but only for short periods and above all in private parties, and then became an occasion for the expression of artistic creations.
      After a long absence, Carnevale returned in 1979. The Italian government decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice, and sought to use the traditional Carnevale as the centerpiece of their efforts. The rehabilitation of the masks began with the initiative of some Venetian university students with the objective of encouraging the tourist trade. Today, about 3 million people visit Venice every year at the period of Carnevale. One of the most important events is the contest for "la più bella maschera" ("the most beautiful mask") held at the end of Carnevale and judged by a commission of international designers of costumes and fashion.

     Still in its beginnings, with the popularization of this form of masquerade, several models of masks appeared, representing ideas or characters, and the craftsmen, called “maschereri”, assured its manufacturing. In the eleventh century, the period corresponding to the beginning of the history of Carnevale, there are records about a school of craftsmen specialized in manufacturing them. The "maschereri" (masks artisans) had their own statute dated April 10, 1436. They belonged to the class of painters and were aided in their task by famous painters who charged exaggerated fees by their work. The number of studios of the "maschereri" have been growing and the Venetian art of the masks became famous throughout Europe.

     Among the most famous types of mask we have Pantalone, Arlecchino, Dotore, Colombina, Pulcinella and Bauta. Each one representing a social type or caricatural characters.

Here are some examples of Commedia dell'Arte characters:


     Pantalone, which means one who wears pants or a father figure in Italian, is usually represented as an old and sad man, with a huge nose like the beak of a crow, high eyebrows and slanted eyes (a mask created to represent intelligence on stage) . Like other Commedia masks, the Pantalone is also a half-mask.

     It is still debated today on the etymological origin of this name: Pantalone would have been a very rich man who, in spite of his old age, and famous for its sexual adventures. The character represents, in Commedia dell'Arte, the hypocritical conservatism of society.


     She is the mischievous servant of Commedia dell'Arte. Comic character that can not be taken as an example of virtue; and is the eternal lover of Arlecchino. Her dress is simple and sometimes has the colors of her boyfriend's dress.

     Colombina (also known as Columbina) is a half-mask, which covers only the eyes, nose and upper cheeks of the wearer. It is often richly decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers.

     Colombina was a servant or maid, a soubrette (a minor feminine role in a comedy, typically a servant) who was a beloved element of Italian theater for generations. In fact, Colombina is a completely modern creation. There are no historical pictures that show their use on stage or in social life.


     Doctor only in the title, this character can pass for a doctor, a lawyer or any other profession of prestige, according to the farce that he wants to perform. Presumptuous, arrogant, he quotes known by heart Latin citations. When called by those who believe in his words to accomplish some serious task, he deviates with his Latin mixed with local dialects. 


     The Bauta (sometimes called Baùtta) is a grotesque mask of traditional art that was designed to comfortably cover the entire face, originally in a plain white. Today it can be found totally adorned. 

     It has a prominent nose, a thick supra-orbital crest, a prominent "chin line," and no mouth. The beak -shaped chin of the mask is designed to allow the masquerade to speak, eat and drink without having to remove it, thus preserving the anonymity of the masquerade.

      In the 18th century, it was used in conjunction with a black cape called "tabarro", the Bauta became a fancy and standardized mask of society, regulated by the government of Venice. It's use was mandatory in certain political decision-making events when all citizens were required to act anonymously as peers. Only citizens (ie men) had the right to use Bauta. Its role was similar to the processes of anonymity created to secure general, direct, free, equal and secret elections in modern democracies. In addition, the carrying of weapons in conjunction with the mask was prohibited by law and controlled by the Venice police.

 Medico della Peste

(The Doctor of the Plague)

     The Dotore della Peste, with its long beak, is one of the most bizarre and well-known Venetian masks; although it did not begin as a Mask of Carnevale, but as a method of preventing the spread of the plague. The striking design originated in the 17th century when the French physicist Charles de Lorne adopted the mask in conjunction with other sanitary measures during the treatment of the victims of the plague.

     The mask, white most of the times, has a hollow beak and rounded eye cavities covered with crystal discs, creating an effect of wearing glasses. 

     Its use as a Carnevale mask is entirely a modern convention, and today these masks are used mainly for decoration.

     The plague doctors (or Dotore de la Peste) who followed the example of De Lorne wore the usual black hat, a long black cloak, as well as the mask, white gloves and a stick (so as to be able to move patients without having physical contact with them). They hoped that these precautions would prevent them from contracting the disease.

Moretta - Servetta Muta

     The moretta (ie, a dark lady) or servetta muta (which means mute servant ) was a black velvet oval mask, small and strapless, with large ocular cavities and no mouth, used by aristocratic women. It is derived from the visard mask created in France in the 16th century. The mask was large enough to conceal the woman's identity and was held in place by the user by biting a small button or coin (women wearing this mask were unable to speak); could also be used as a veil. The Rhinocerous by Pietro Longhi describes the use of this mask in 1.751.


     The character Zanni is another stage classic. His mask is a leather half-mask, showing him with a low forehead, protruding eyebrows and a long nose with a reverse curve at the end. It is said that the longer the nose, the more stupid he is. The low forehead is also seen as a sign of stupidity.


     It is the most popular mask. Its temperament is different from that present in Brighela: while this one is astute, Arlecchino is not intelligent, very clumsy and unskilful. His way of walking resembles dance and his speech is characteristic of less prestigious dialects.

     He was created to be a sort of "good savage", devoid of reason and full of emotion, a peasant, a servant, or even a slave. His half-mask originally of wood and later of leather painted in black describes him as having a short simian nose, arched eyebrows, rounded beard, and always has a bump on the forehead to represent a devil's horn. He is a theatrical counterpoint to the Pantalone and often his servant, appearing often together on stage.


     He is, like Harlequin, a rough servant, but he can be both cunning and coward. His inspiration is Naples, while others are inspired by the sobriety of Bologna. His Neapolitan spirit brings him vivacity.

     And so we took a brief tour through history and some of the characters from the "Carnevale di Venezia".

Source: Wikipedia