An Introduction to Masks in 16th-Century Venice, Italy

Venetian carnival scene showing revelers in different styles of masks, 1595.

Venetian carnival scene showing revelers in different styles of masks, 1595, by Pieter de Jode the Elder. Printed in Private Lives in Renaissance Venice by Patricia Fortini Brown

By Lady Violet Ruthvene in the SCA, written to help the West Kingdom prepare for a masked ball

Two great medieval traditions made mask-wearing popular among the citizens of the Republic of Venice: the festival of Carnevale and the Commedia dell’ Arte theater. Between these, you have a variety of mask styles to choose from, depending on your mood, persona, and how historically accurate you wish to be.

In Catholic communities, Carnevale is a period of indulgence before the penitent season of Lent, which is 40 days before Easter. The exact length of Carnevale has varied from era to era and among different regions. The first recorded observance of Carnevale in Venice was in 1296, and the celebrations grew to include competitions between the siestres (districts) of the city, bull races and slaughters, wrestling and gymnastic displays, parades leading to Piazza San Marco, quasi-religious ceremonies lead by the doge (duke, elected ruler of Venice), and elaborate costumes and masks.

In 1463, the mask-maker’s guild was established, and the ruling council began to issue laws restricting when, where, how, and who could wear masks. These pieces of information are how we infer the importance of masks to Venetian life. Some of the more revealing laws include:

Masked musician, 1638

Masked musician, 1638, by Francesco Bertelli. From a costume series published in Vicenza. Image from the British Museum.

  • Masqueraders could not go around the city at night (circa 1339).
  • Masqueraders could not carry weapons or any instrument that could cause harm.
  • Men could not wear masks inside nuns’ parlous or convents.
  • No-one could wear a mask with religious garments or inside a church.
  • No-one was allowed to wear masks in times of plague (circa 1546).
  • Prostitutes could not wear masks.

By the 16th century, Carnevale celebrations extended from December 26 until Lent began, and masks could be worn all during this time. Masks were also worn during the festival of Ascension, which commemorated the marriage of Venice to the sea. That mask-wearing period began 30 days after Easter and lasted until June. So about half the year could be spent masked!

Perhaps the oldest mask style is the simple domino or half-mask. This mask covers the eyes and part of the nose. While historical imagery is scarce, descriptions note that women often wore solid black masks and men would wear solid white masks. The early 17th-century engravings show very little decoration and usually on masks worn by musicians, dancers, and other entertainers.

Carnevale revelers wearing early forms of the larva / volto masks with hats and veils, 1610

Carnevale revelers wearing early forms of the larva / volto masks with hats and veils, 1610, by Giacomo Franco. Image from the British Museum.

The iconic Venetian mask, one found nowhere else during Carnevale, is the larva also called the volto, and it appears that this form originated in the 16th century. This mask covers half the face and is open below the nose to allow the wearer to eat, drink, and talk without being revealed. These masks were not decorated at all and was usually plain white. They were often worn with a hat and a veil attached to the mask, which gave a very secretive look. In the 18th century, this veil was first called the bauta (coming from names for lace, which it was often made of), and the veil was attached to a tricorn hat. Today, the names larva, volto, and bauta are sometimes used interchangeably for the same mask.

During the Italian Renaissance, as the arts flourished, so did the theater. Commedia dell’ Arte used stock characters with easily identifiable masks, behind which actors improvised satirical plays. Many characters evolved over time, but the earliest ones have masks that are still common.

Commedia dell’ Arte masks were often made of leather and formed to show exaggerated facial expressions. Arlecchino or Harlequin is a crafty servant character who wears a black mask with raised eyebrows. Pantalone is a miserly old man who wears a mask with a big nose and bushy eyebrows. These types of masks were not worn by the citizens of Venice, only by the performing actors.

Arlecchino, Pantalone, and Franceschina, late 16th century

Arlecchino, Pantalone, and Franceschina, late 16th century. Printed in Le Maschere Veneziane by Danilo Reato.

In 1608, the council decided that the casual mask-wearing was getting out of hand. A decree was issued that limited masks only to Carnevale and official banquets. Penalties for defying this law were severe: Men would suffer two years in jail and a 500 lire fine, while women would be whipped and held in public ridicule between the two columns at Piazza San Marco.

Of course, like many heavy-handed laws, this wasn’t successful, and mask-wearing continued to be popular in Venice throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Venetian Carnevale was a major tourist destination for the European elite until the Republic fell to Napoleon’s army in 1797.

The masks were mostly cast aside for over a century, and not until the 1980s were the public Carnevale celebrations revived. Today, Venice’s mask-makers flourish again, and many have revived historical techniques — even if their creations are worn only for two weeks before Lent instead of months.

A Short Bibliography

Sources used in this article and where to get more in-depth info.

  • Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice by Edward Muir, Princeton University Press, 1981:  Essential reading to understand the importance of Carnevale (and similar festivals) in the medieval and Renaissance city. Also explains why the celebration died out when the Republic fell.
  • Venice Carnival by Paolo Alei with photography by Virginio Favale, Artmedia Press, 2003:  With lush photos and text that blends scholarly insight with a deep love for the topic, this book is a real find for anyone intrigued by the meaning behind the pre-lenten festival. This is perhaps the only tome to address both Carnevale’s history and its revival with any depth.
  • Le Maschere Veneziane by Danilo Reato, Arsenale Editrice, 1988:  In Italian with English, French, and German footnotes. I found this book in Venice, so unfortunately, it’s rare in the U.S. But this one is worth hunting down for the detailed explanations of the various types of masks commonly worn during Carnevale.

More Resources About Carnevale and Commedia

Learn more about Venetian Carnevale. Perhaps you’d like to visit one year?

Make a Mask

Two pre-17th-century European methods to create masks…

Buy a Mask

Not endorsing any of these shops, just listing some historically accurate shapes…

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One Response to “An Introduction to Masks in 16th-Century Venice, Italy”

  1. Hello, this is a very interesting post about 16th century Venetian masks. I’d be interested in your opinion about the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, which looks like the subject is wearing a mask in view of thick non-anatomical line extending down from his ear along his cheek. Given that so many Shakespeare plays are set in Italy (including Venice), and have echoes of Commedia d’elle Arte, I would be interested in your opinion about the Droeshout portrait. Here’s a link to a recent post about the portrait:

    http://www.theshakespeareunderground.com/2013/01/droeshoutportrait/

    What do you think? Is Shakespeare wearing a mask?

    Thanks, and I hope to hear your response!

    Cheers,
    Richard Agemo

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