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.
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.
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.
The final two you will see are La Ruffina—the 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
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