History of Italian Masks

Updated April 17, 2017

The history of Italian masks goes back to 12th century Venice. While the original purpose of the masks was to conceal a person's identity during pre-Lenten celebrations, the masks soon became popular for concealing one's identity at any time of the year.


Italian masks are believed to date to 1162 when Doge Vitale Michieli won a victory over Ulrich II of Treven and a party took place--called "Carnevale"--to memorialise the event. The first documentation of Venetian masks was in 1268 at the Carnevale. Carnevale was created to coincide with the Roman Catholic tradition of Lent, which was practised on and around "Martedí Grasso" (Shrove Tuesday) or Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday). In fact, the word carnevale is believed to have come from the Latin "carnem levare" or "carnelevarium", which means to take away meat. Masks were later used in "Commedia dell'Arte," a type of theatre that began in the 16th century and featured masks that represented stock characters, including the fool, the maid and the doctor.


The masks gave the wearer the opportunity to enjoy the festivities without being concerned about who was watching or judging them. Even the clergy were said to wear masks so that they could also partake in the festivities. Anonymity allowed people the freedom to interact with whom they wanted no matter what class or sex they were. Masks put everyone on the same social level.

Time Frame

The Venetians had the reputation in medieval times for being a promiscuous and self-indulgent people. Masks were worn at other times of the year to conceal one's identity in case he engaged in activities such as gambling or adultery. Medieval Italy was repressed both religiously and culturally and Venice, in that era, was like a small city where everyone knew each other. Masks became a popular form of protecting one's reputation in medieval Venice. Mask wearing reached a peak in the 18th century when Venetians of different social classes used carnevale as an excuse to mingle, and sometimes, to make sexual favours without being recognised.


The Bauta: covers the entire face and is made out of papier-mache, then decorated with gold leaf, gems and feathers. The entire disguise is most often characterised by a shining white face-shaped mask, a black cape and a three-cornered hat. Both men and women could wear the bauta disguise. Servetta Muta (dumb maidservant) Medico ella Peste (the plague doctor): characterised by a long nose. The Gnaga: a female disguise for men only. The "mute mask": lacks an incision around the mouth so that the person's voice is also concealed. Colombina (maidservant): a mask on a stick that allowed you to show people your identity (if you so desired). Farfallina Arlecchino: A half-mask with a Harlequin pattern.

Modern Significance

Modern masks generally only cover the eyes and nose, although there are still full face masks made by skilled artists. However, if you're looking to enjoy carnevale to the fullest, it may make eating and drinking difficult.

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About the Author

Rachel Oliva is a writer/actress who has been writing since 2005. She has been published in "Valley Scene Magazine" and her voice has been featured in television and radio ads across the country. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in theater and psychology from Augsburg College. She studied acting at the Actors Studio and the Royal Theatre and writing at the UCLA Writer's Program.