Dragons of Challon series

Dragons of Challon series
Dragons of Challon

27 February 2019

The History and Meaning Behind the Masks of Venice Carnival




The History and Meaning Behind the Masks of Carnival

The Venice Carnival dates back to the 1300s, but has changed in purpose and style over the centuries, even banned by the Church at points.  Not just a time of festivities, it saw a period of social change by the people, outside of government and Church.  It was often used for political purposes, allowing the common man and nobility to move and navigate the troubled times without revealing their identities.  In ancient years, the lengths of observances ran much longer, often months—sometimes nearly half of the year—as it permitted people to hold votes and work political machinations, giving voice, albeit anonymous to the common citizen, and allowing the nobles to work outside of their sphere to affect change.  It often allowed romantic assignations, as the masked revelers moved from party to party, even indulged in the gaiety in the streets.  Yet, it was so much more.  Carnival was the budding of political and religious change that happened outside normal channels of government and Church.



Currently, it runs the ten days before Ash Wednesday.  On first glance, The Carnival of Venice shares many characteristics with the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans.  New Orleans is the Big Easy, with a party on down, Cher that sees less emphasis on the traditional costumes, and focuses on enjoying the best time ever.  The Venice celebration still draws heavily on their Medieval roots and customs of their elaborate costumes.  The fancy attire slowly evolved over the centuries, yet remained firmly rooted in the Medieval origins.  Venetians generally started holding their masked parties on the 26th of December—the start of Lent.  Masks were created to conceal identities, thus reflecting a social change, allowing the lowest classes and nobility to mingle.  Peasants and aristos alike could indulge in grand balls, dancing and partying throughout the long winter nights.  The anonymity of masks permitted a freedom to let their inner wishes and fantasies take life.  Gambling, drinking and indulging in clandestine affairs happened with no repercussions, which soon proved advantageous for furtive political aspirations.  Soon, it was obligatory to wear masks at certain governmental decision-making events, where all citizens were required to act anonymously as peers.  Through the masquerades the divisions of aristo and serf lines blurred.  The protected processes, in truth, were the first steps to a democracy. To see this balloting was fair and secure, men were not permitted to carry swords or guns while wearing masks, and the police enforced this law religiously.  Thus, you see the masks and their meanings carry a more involved significance that just hiding who you were and having a good time.



The original mask was named the Batua.  It was always white, and made of ceramic or leather.  The name comes from behüten, meaning to protect.  The mask fit over the whole face, completely concealing the wearer’s identity.  To further hide who they were, a hood of black or red covered their heads and reached their shoulders, and was topped by a black tricono—a tri-corner hat.  A long black or red cape finished the costume.  While designed for a man, women soon were taking advantage of the opportunity the outfit afforded them.  The mouth on the mask was very small and expressionless, with oval slits for eyes, and two air holes on the nose.  While the mask afforded complete protection, it did not allow the wearer to eat or drink without taking it off.



The Volta was the next style to rise.  It completely cover the face, but often held a ghostly or more sinister expression.  Also called the Larva Mask—Larva meaning ghost—it was a slightly unnerving countenance, though it did let the wearer eat and drink easily. 



Usually worn by men, again they came with black hoods covering hair and shoulders, black capes and the black tricorno hat.

Women quickly saw disadvantage to the full covering, and adopted the Moretta.  Originating in France, the Moretta, allowed their feminine features to be showcased with less coverage.  The design quickly saw this mask losing favor.  Also called the Silent Mask, women held the mask before their face by clenching a tabbed button between their teeth.  I can imagine they quickly wanted changes to this style!  Surely, a man invented this one.  




Disenchanted with the Moretta’s enforced silence, women soon flocked to the Columbina masks.  Inspired by Commedia dell’arte.  The art form was improvised plays, very popular from the 1500s.  Each held a set stock of comedic characters for the actors, a few basic plots—such as troubled love affairs—but often they reflected current events and political protests in the guise of comedy.  Much like political cartoons of today, these street plays poked fun at politicians and the Church, all in the perimeters of comedy and entertainment.  The female standard in the plays had a demi-masque, only covering part of the forehead, eyes and upper parts of the nose and cheeks, revealing, yet more flattering to the female face.  These were decorated with gold, silver, crystals, and colorful plumes, especially peacock feathers, and tied with ribbons to hold them in place or carried on a baton.  Today, the costuming has been taken to a high art form.  



One of the more bizarre ones you will see is the Medico Della Peste (Plague Doctor).  These startling bird-beak style masks were created in the 1600s by a French physician Charles de Lorme, and not for the purposes of Carnival celebrating.  Just the opposite, de Lorme formed them to protect doctors treating plague victims.  By this time, foul airs were suspect as the cause of spreading the plague, and in response, naturally physicians wanted to guard themselves against infection.  De Lorme decided plague tainted the air with these noxious fumes, so then if the physicians breathed perfumed air they would escape catching the disease.  He created this grotesque mask that looked like a larger-than-life bird head.  The exaggerated beak was filled with herbs, and the eye slits were covered with rose tinted lenses.  Literally, several pieces of common knowledge have passed into our consciousness from this horrible period.  The term looking through rose colored glasses, now meaning viewing the world in a beautiful tone, instead of facing reality, came from the creation of these physicians’ masks.  The other was the old tome Ring Around the Rosie—a child’s rhyme that speaks about the mass spreading of deaths from the Black Death.  Children of future generations repeated this morbid singsong without ever understanding what they were chanting.  To further the protection of the healers, physicians wore hoods covering their head and shoulders, long gowns and capes, with huge white gloves that went all the way up their upper arms.  The Japanese used the figure of Godzilla, first to explain the bombs that were dropped on them during WWII, and then through making Godzilla the protector of their island, they faced their terrors and made the nightmare less disturbing.  The Venetians did the same in adopting this bizarre costume as part of the collection of characters. They were saying that death walked amongst them, and they mocked and laughed at mortality.



Arlecchino was a later addition.  Coming from the French Arleguin—this evolved to the more familiar Harlequin.  He was a fool, depicted dressed in diamonds of black and white, or a rainbow of colors.  Another version on this theme was the Pulcinella—a crook-nosed hunchback, that you typically saw as Punch in the Punch and Judy street puppet theatre performers.



The final two you will see are La Ruffinathe Old Woman.  She is usually the mother or, grandmother, sometimes with Gypsy portrayals, who takes great delight in trying to foil a lovers' tryst.  Scaramuccia, again comes from the French Scaramouche.  He was a total rogue, who dashed about with a sword causing mischief, and challenging other males to mock duels.  Rounding out the costumes were ones of the Moon and Sun, religious popes and bishops, kings and queens, or sometimes animals such as cats and wolves.



By the 1800s, Carnival began to fall into decline.  It had changed from the period of Lent, to lasting for six months of every year.  In 1797 Venice became a part of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, after Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio.  The Austrians quickly took charge of the city, and afterward the celebrations all but stopped.  It was a long absence before Venice saw a true Carnival again.  In 1979, the government decided to revive the traditions of the celebration, using it to draw tourists.  The move worked as over three million visitors come to Venice each year for the colorful pre-Lent parades and parties.  A centerpiece for the ten day festival is the la maschera più bella—the most beautiful mask.  A panel of international designers pick the most stunning mask for each year.

So, even if you have experienced the unforgettable Mardi Gras of New Orleans, you might still wish to indulge in the extravagance, pageantry and historical display of Carnival in Venice.


© Deborah Macgillivray, February 2019

3 comments:

Candy Thompson said...

WOW!!! Thank You SO Much for such a well-written, interesting and informative post!!! ALL your posts are great and this one is no exception. I loved the pictures and all the information which gave me a much better understanding of the meaning and history behind the masks of the Venice Carnival!!! I thoroughly enjoyed it!!! Please keep your great posts coming...I'll be looking for your next one!!! :) :) :)

Keena Kincaid said...

I had no idea Carnival in Venice was so intricate and long-lived. I was in Venice years ago, but apparently after the festivities were over.

Keena

Deborah Macgillivray said...

Glad you enjoyed the back story on the marvelous masquarades