Masquerade balls hold romance and intrigue, accentuated by the masks guests wear to disguise their identity. Some masks are very simple, while others are so carefully planned and elaborate that they constitute works of art. Their history goes beyond that of the balls themselves, and holds specific cultural meanings besides their beauty and mystery.
The tradition of masquerade masks initially catalysed on the streets of Venice, Italy in the 15th century. An annual carnival took place throughout the city, in which practitioners would wear masks and colourful costumes. It originally served as a pre-Lent celebration, "blowing off steam" before the sacrifice and repentance of Lent. The original purpose of the masks in this festival are unclear, though they maintained the revellers' anonymity in the face of disapproving officials.
Mask-makers in Venice were skilled artisans who created masks out of clay and papier mache. They decorated them with feathers, beads or even gems in the most expensive cases. Mask-makers became so successful that by the mid-1400s, they organised into an officially recognised guild.
The popularity of carnival celebrations expanded into other types of parties such as weddings and balls. The masks served both as a fashion expression during such parties--with wealthy guests revelling in clever or elaborate masks--and as a means of escaping social conventions. Because no one could tell who you were behind the mask, you could gossip about others, flirt with people other than your spouse and engage in conversation with those below your social station. Critics of the practice cited the masks as encouraging immorality, but the popularity of the balls soon grew beyond the traditional period of Lent.
The Practice Spreads
Swiss Count John James Heidegger brought the masquerade to England in the early 1700s, and it soon spread throughout Europe and colonial America. Because the masks had an Italian association, critics often complained of "foreign" influences at the masquerades. Though the masks themselves used simple elements, they remained the purveyance of the upper crust.
As Venice's cultural influence declined, so too did the use of masquerade masks. Napoleon Bonaparte forbade the practice after he conquered Italy, as did Benito Mussolini when he controlled Italy. Masquerades continued in other parts of the world, however--maintained by Mardi Gras celebrations and similar affairs--and the 1970s witnessed the return of the Carnival to Venice, with a resurgent popularity in balls.
Modern masquerade masks include plastic and fabric as well as traditional elements like clay and papier mache. The social stigma has largely vanished, leaving the practice a fun and intriguing way to enjoy yourself at a party. Masks continue to appear at the Venetian carnival, as well as similar street parties and balls throughout the world. A masquerade mask also served as a pivotal device in the Stanley Kubrick film "Eyes Wide Shut," in which the main character infiltrates a bacchanalian orgy disguised with a Venetian mask.
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