At the time when Julius Caesar was romancing Cleopatra, Egypt observeda Pagan Festival in honor of the coming harvest that included masks. The Roman forces delighted in bringing exotic treasures and customs back to Italy…..and so the custom migrated to Italy.
The Pagan festival was popular amongst the Italians but conflicted with Christian beliefs so about 1500 years ago the Pope of the time declared that the festival would be called Carnevale. This festival is indulgent, lasting for 14 days and precedes the 40 days of fasting immediately before Easter. The name Carnevale (Carne/meat) implies an abstinence from meat which is likely during the time of fasting.
The mask flourished after its Christian makeover with the mask makers operating within the Master Painters Guild until 1436 when the Mask Makers Guild was founded. Although Carnevale lasted for only 2 weeks, masks became increasingly popular during other times of the year. The mask allowed Venetians freedom to enjoy their life, free from the recognition and judgment of others. Citizens were no longer burdened by restrictions of class or marital status and the wealthy and poor reveled in the freedom.
The plague infected Venice several times and survivors were left with unsightly scars on their faces. The mask offered a way a hiding the scars and became a routine fashion accessory with specific styles coming into vogue.
The “Doctor of the Pestilence” wore a long cloak and a white mask with a bird like beak. This mask always had glasses painted onto it to symbolize education. Within the cavity of the beak the doctor would insert disinfectant fragrant herbs that assisted in disguising the stench of death. He would lift the bed covers with a long stick and make his assessment of the patient. The population had a superstitious view of the plague. The bird mask was chosen to frighten off this evil affliction, though little was done for the patient who was sometimes sealed off behind doors that were nailed shut and left to die. The “lucky ones” who experienced progressive medical treatment were bled with the aid of leaches – it is unclear whether this treatment actually helped.
The “Moretta Mask” was a simple oval mask often covered in black velvet and worn by women of all social classes before they were married. It stayed in place by use of a button on the back of the mask which was held into place by the clenched teeth of the young woman who wore it. This rendered her silent, mysterious and most alluring as she meandered through the labyrinth of Venice. After the wedding a different mask would be chosen, enabling the lady to express herself – welcome or not to her groom.
In Venice the most popular mask was the “Bauta” which was accepted as the mask of the Veneto region, worn by both men and woman.
A long black cloak and a Bauta mask were the ultimate disguise. The prominent jaw disguised the voice, the gender of the wearer was well hidden behind the cloak and his or her features were hidden behind the mask. The Bauta’s fierce expression added drama and intrigue but also made the wearer look powerful. Those who wore the “Bauta” were dashing as the cape flowed behind them and the tricorn hat added to their stature. Casanova himself would have worn this very costume and for this reason today the Bauta is also called Casanova.
Various “Commedia Dell’ Arte” (ancient theatre) masks are worn including “Pulchinello, Zane, Capitano, Scaramouche and Arlecchino”. The “Gnaga” which was popular amongst the effeminate gentlemen who were prone to a high pitch voice, briefly made an appearance but is rare today. At a time when homosexuality was forbidden but dalliances were frequent, the mask was a valuable tool in disguise. It is believed that Gnaga comes from the word “gnau” or the meow of the cat which many of its wearers’ speech resembled. The Venetian saying is “to have a voice like a gnaga” which refers to both men and women with a high pitched voice. This is contrary to the deep, emphatic and melodic voices of the modern Venetian citizens.
The Spanish Inquisition was a challenging time when Casanova was active winning the favors of many ladies. Casanova is recognized as the western world’s most famous “lover” and was imprisoned for what was considered debauchery. He made a daring escape and in spite of his great talent and education was not able to return to Venice. His memoirs make interesting reading and give valuable insight to the lifestyle of the time.
During the Spanish Inquisition, the wearing of masks was declared illegal but it was difficult to police. Thus the mask survived until Napoleon conquered the Province but he was threatened by the revelry and the anonymity of the mask and successfully banned it.
For hundreds of years Carnivale took place without masks however in 1978 an artisan decided to make some masks for his family. They were greeted with so much enthusiasm that the following year he organized masks to be made by the art students of the academia who needed to supplement their income. It was an immediate success and now it is difficult to imagine that masks had ever been outlawed.
In modern times masks have evolved into Amazon Warrior, Pierrot, Phantom and eye masks called Colombina in honor of the Commedia Dell’ Arte character. Often the mask is decorated with music in memory of Vivaldi who wrote some of his music in Venice. There are pretty ceramic imitations of the lifesize masks that make sweet momentos for the modern tourist. These days papier mache is usually replaced by something less work intensive. Contempory masks are embellished with feathers, Swarovski crystals, gold and silver leaf, lace and even lacey metal.
The “Cat” is popular in Venice not only because of its endearing nature but its flexibility to cohabitate with humans in the densely populated apartments of the ancient city. Happy to live on the fifth floor with only a window to link them to the outdoors…. the domestic cat is much loved in Venice.
Historically the Cat is recognized for its assistance in managing the plague by killing the vermin that spread the disease.
Cleopatra gifted cats to Julius Caesar as a thing most necessary to protect valuable grain stores, something sacred and precious. In this way the cat was introduced to Europe and proved herself to be once again indispensable by assisting in plague management. Modern Cat masks are often embellished with Swarovski crystals and glitter, elaborate eye lashes and the symbol of a heart on the nose.
Currently the height of fashion is the metal mask which generally is Gold Plate or powder coated. Metal masks embellished with Swarovski crystals take many forms including cat, phoenix, angel and fox. They are romantic, whimsical and pure fantasy. Metal masks are light and can be quite comfortable to wear, not that any mask is comfortable.
A most dramatic effect can be achieved as a metal mask does not dominate the wearer but rather embellishes her as if it were a piece of jewelry.