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The 1998 film Dangerous Beauty offers an enticing view of 16th century Venice. Based on the real-life story of Venetian Veronica Franco, noted courtesan and poet, the film captures the essence of the luxurious, debauchery-driven Venetian society. Part of Venice's legendary debauchery centers around the Venetian Carnival, or Carnevale di Venezia. Part of the enduring iconography of Carnival (and of the Republic of Venice in general) are the Venetian Masks that are still widely collected and admired today.

What are Venetian Masks?

Venetian masks were traditionally worn to protect the identity of the wearer and were eventually worn during the Venetian Carnival. The masks are divided into two categories: Commedia dell' Arte masks and Carnival masks. Commedia dell' Arte was a popular form of improvisational theater in Italy beginning in the 15th century. Characters from various plays became popular, and some of those characters were reflected in Venetian masks. Brighella, for example, is a green half-mask with a pointed nose based on a theatrical style. Names were not exclusive to Commedia dell'Arte masks, however. The most famous Carnival mask was named Bauta, which was a full face mask with no mouth, but with a beak-like chin that covered the mouth and allowed the wearer to eat, drink, and talk without removing the mask. It was typically worn with a cloak and tricorn hat. Venice suffered through many plagues, and the Medico della peste costume consisted of a mask with a long beak nose, black coat, and white gloves. This costume and mask is an homage to the plague doctor. Venetian masks were usually made with a papier-mâché base, and then heavily embellished with fabric, feathers, fur, and gems.

When Did They Come into Use?

Venetian masks are identified with the Venetian Carnival, which some historians believe was first held in 1168 to celebrate Venice's victory over Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia. The first written mention of Venetian masks comes from the 13th century, and the document bans masked men from throwing eggshells of rosewater at women. By 1339 Venetian officials banned people wearing masks from visiting convents. By 1436 the Guild of Decorators organized mask-makers and mask-making became a recognized profession in Venice. These mask-makers were called mascareri. Initially, laws confined mask-wearing to Carnival; by the 18th century, it was legal to wear masks from October-June. Austria conquered Venice in 1798 and banned mask wearing by Venetian citizens. Benito Mussolini, Italy's Fascist dictator, banned Carnival in 1930, and it seemed for a time that both Carnival and Venetian masks were part of Venice's history.

What Was Their Purpose?

Venice was a highly stratified society. The Republic of Venice only allowed nobles to participate in government and public life. Carnival relaxed the rules, but masks made it genuinely possible for peasants and nobles alike to dance, gamble, conspire, and flirt with each other. Venetian law also restricted women's movements, rights, and freedoms. Wearing the Moretta mask allowed women more freedom to leave their neighborhoods and participate in Venetian culture. The masks allowed its wearers to not only conceal their individual identities, but also conceal their class identity.

What Was the Venetian Carnival?

Some Latin scholars believe that the Italian word Carnevale derives from the Latin carnem levare, which translates as take away meat. Carnevale is celebrated in the pre-Lent period before Catholics spend forty days in deep reflection and give up luxuries such as meat. The Carnival of Venice is an extravagant, annual last party before this somber season. The celebration would begin on December 26th and continue through the start of Lent. Parties held during the Venetian Carnival allowed people of different classes to mingle together, which was not allowed at other times during the year. The Festa delle Marie and the Flight of the Angel were part of the celebrations.

Venetian Masks Today

A group of organizers came together in 1979 to bring Carnival back to Venice. Initially, they planned on hosting the equivalent of a historical reenactment. Venetian business people quickly realized Carnival could serve as a highly successful extra tourist season (Summer is Venice's high tourist season). They were right. The highlights of modern Carnival include the Water Parade, Festa delle Marie, and the Flight of the Angel. Masks are a huge part of today's carnival. 18th-century style masks and costumes are especially popular with today's Carnival-goers. Inexpensive masks are available at stands throughout the city. However, stores following the old Guild of Decorators specifications still produce masks made traditionally, out of paper-mache and decorated with real ribbon. A new artist guild recently incorporated in Venice, dedicated to the traditional Venetian mask-making craft.
Article written by Lexi Westingate
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