A unique tradition of wearing masks to conceal one's identity emerged in Venice, Italy during times of antiquity. Banned by the Catholic Church at one time, the masks had become part of a culture where debauchery and immorality were commonplace. Today, Venetian masks continue to be worn as part of cultural events not only in Venice, but in other places around the world.
The strange history of Venetian masks began during the medieval age when Venice was known as the Venetian Republic. The region was relatively small with a population of only 150,000, according to Eioba.com. During this time, Venetians found success and great wealth building ships. This trade made Venice one of the most economically successful societies in history: A culture of wealth, luxury and extravagance became standard.
As the Venetian's wealth increased, so did their unethical and immoral behaviour and practices. Venetians began wearing masks in their daily lives so they could behave in ways they might not otherwise, according to MagicofVenezia.com. Maintaining anonymity allowed them to see people, do things and cut business deals in secret. Although hard to imagine, soon everyone walked around the city wearing the masks every day. Venetians concealed their identities so they could gamble and be sexually promiscuous. Women wore masks so they could dress provocatively and prostitute themselves. Acts of homosexuality, frowned upon in Rome and other parts of Italy, became more common since participants could hide their identities. Even monks and nuns donned masks and engaged in the debauchery. In addition to allowing for immoral acts, the masks also levelled Venice's social playing field. With masks on, no one could tell the difference between a servant and a business owner, thereby preventing inequality and prejudice. The masks also gave people more courage to voice their opinions on important matters without fear of retribution.
For many years, those in Italy's capital city of Rome ignored the masked antics of Venice as long as the money kept flowing in. But after the 1100s, the Catholic Church banned the practice of wearing masks, especially on holy days. The practice was gradually reintroduced when it was decided that for a three month period beginning December 26, the masked decadence would be allowed. Over time, the period lessened and eventually became a week-long, pre-Lent celebration called "Carnevale." Today's Carnevale, or Carnival, in Venice features fanciful celebrations that delight tourists and residents alike. Venetian masks are a prominent part of Carnevale and Venetian culture year-round.
Venetian masks are made from paper-mache and decorated with fur, feathers, beads and gems. The styles and names of today's masks come from characters in early improvisational theatre performed in different parts of Italy called "Commedia dell'Arte" or "Art of Comedy." These travelling teams of performers would set up in town squares and perform comedic sketches, juggling acts and acrobatics while wearing different masks. Some masks are simple while others are colourful and elaborate; there are differing styles for men and women.
Colombine or Colombina masks cover only the top half of the face. Additional adornments such as feathers may jut from the top, or beads may hang from the bottom.
Bauta masks cover the whole face, have a square top, no mouth and an exaggerated, pointy chin that juts outward.
A Gatto ( "cat") mask is a half-mask shaped like a feline face.
Jester masks are joker's masks that cover the whole face.
A Zanni mask is a half mask with a very long, beak nose.
A Dama is a full mask with a large, round headpiece. This type of mask is worn exclusively by women.
A Volto or Larva is a whole mask that is usually plain white and often worn with a black cloak.
The tradition of Venetian masks has spread beyond Venice and their use in Carnevale. In the Americas, Europe and other parts of the world, the masks have become tradition at masquerade balls. Venetian masks are also popular at Mardi Gras celebrations, such as in New Orleans and other cities. The masks made a prominent appearance in the 1999 movie "Eyes Wide Shut" starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a couple that joins a sex club whose members wear them during their sexual escapades.
Authentic, hand-made Venetian masks can cost several hundred dollars, depending on their size and adornments. MagicofVenezia.com sells authentic masks that range in price from £42 to £299. You can find less authentic and cheaper masks, some under £6, online and at Halloween and masquerade stores.