Masquerade Masks History

Updated April 17, 2017

The hauntingly beautiful masks of the Carnival masquerade festivities of Venice, Italy, have a history that dates to the thirteenth century. The story of the masks from the Italian city features war and religion and today reflects a new attitude of the Venetian people.

Birthplace of the Masquerade Mask

The Venetian masquerade mask was an established part of this ancient city of canals by 1436, when the city's mask makers became recognised with their own guild. Originally, the carnival of Venice was a yearly celebration of the capture of an invader of this city of canals named Ulrich II. The beginnings of the tradition of wearing the masks as part of the celebration is not clear, though the Catholic church played a part in the eventual wearing of the mask during the festivities.


The Carnival festivities included elaborate masquerade balls and grand dinners, entertainment in the grand piazza featuring jugglers, acrobats and travelling exhibits of exotic animals and birds. The masks, gowns and activities reached their height in the eigthteenth century.

Traditional Methods

The Venetian mask maker guild used two methods to make the traditional masks for the carnival. The primary method was the use of papier mache, combined with glue to form the shapes of the masks. This method created the traditional mask-on-the-stick disguise, covering the eyes, that was typically worn by women revellers. More elaborate full-face masks used clay to form the desired shape. After the forms for the masks dried, the artisans applied gilded paint or the traditional white face colour and added feathers, glass beads and pearls. Bright oranges, reds, blues and greens were popular, while dark colours were used for the more masculine full-face masks. The wearer could design an original mask.

Masquerade Costume

By the eighteenth century, the costume completely covered the male wearer. A tricorne hat (a three-cornered hat) was worn over a black hood with the mask affixed to the face, and the men costumed their entire bodies with dark cloaks. The women attired themselves in sumptuous gowns and ornamented wigs, customarily wearing masks that covered only the upper part of the face.

Masks and Bad Bad Things

In the eleventh century, the Catholic Church banned the festivities several times, but the influential and wealthy Venetian politicians and clergy convinced the Church to relent with the condition that the participants would wear the masquerade attire only between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. The Venetian Carnival became a hedonistic celebration with an "anything goes" attitude prior to the days of religious abstinence. But from this time on, the wearing of the masks became "more" than a once a year tradition for the powerful in Venetian society. The intrigues of the city politics, signing of important documents and year-round illicit affairs kept the aristocracy wearers of masks unrecognisable to fellow citizens of Venice. Anonymity became the norm rather than the holiday extravaganza of the masquerade of Carnival for the Venetian ruling class.

The Masquerade Is Alive

If you are a world traveller or adventure seeker, the Venice Carnival is alive. Napoleon banned the party completely in 1797 and so did Mussolini during the 1930s. It was the 1970s that saw the resurgence of the festival. Participating in Carnival today offers you a variety of activities. The Tourist Board of Venice sponsors the citywide Carnival party from February 13th through the 23rd with a "touristy" feel, according to critics of the modern celebration. February 23rd provides a newer approach to the tradition with the Festa Indiana--a section of the city where locals want participants to experience the city's traditional customs for the festivities and traditional foods. For the purist, this is the "best" party, according to the founders of the activities.

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About the Author

Catalina Bixler's journalism career began in 1970. After five years as a publishing teacher, Bixler then published/edited NATO's U.S. 5th Army and 17th AF "Wiesbaden Post" newspaper. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in bilingual-journalism/community development from Redlands University, and a Master of Arts in adult education/training from the University of Phoenix.