Venetian masks have a long history of protecting their wearer's identity during promiscuous or decadent activities. Made for centuries in Venice, these distinctive masks were formed from papier-mâché and wildly decorated with fur, fabric, gems or ribbons. Eventually, Venetian masks emerged as the emblem of Carnevale, a pageant and street fair that celebrates hedonism. The wearing of Venetian masks has also spread to masquerade balls, Halloween, Mardi Gras and other events.
These masks emerged during a climate of cultural and religious repression during the Medieval era in Italy. People donned the colorful masks to free themselves from judging neighbors, most of whom knew each other well in such a small city. The gentry class and peasants alike sought anonymity for promiscuity, gambling and other indiscretions. Even members of the clergy were alleged to have dressed up to go dancing.
After the 1100s, the masquerade went through periods of being outlawed by the Catholic church, especially during holy days. The church's policy led to eventual acceptance when it declared the months between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday free for Venetian mask-attired decadence. This period evolved into Carnevale, the pre-Lent celebration meaning, "remove meat." Although Carnevale lost popularity as Venice's cultural production faltered during the Enlightenment, it was officially reintroduced in 1979.
Making and Decorating
The modern celebration of Carnevale has reinvigorated the art and craft of making Venetian masks. The traditional method involves sculpting a form out of clay as a base for the mask. Most masks are made from papier-mâché, a sticky paste made from paper strips and glue. This plaster material is layered over the base, then is allowed to dry before being removed to form the basic mask.
The craftsperson then paints designs in gold, silver and bright colors such as royal purple or sunny yellow. Common decorations include sequins, silk ribbons, exotic bird feathers and faux fur. Rhinestones, gold charms, glitter and outlandish trinkets also are often added to Venetian masks.
Recognizable types of Venetian masks have continued to dazzle observers during Carnevale and other times of the year. The Bauta mask covers the whole face, with a stubborn chin line, no mouth and lots of gilding. A half-mask with gold and silver stripes and jeweled eyes is called a Columbino, and it is held up to the face with an attached stick. Other popular shapes include large, hooked noses, black-and-white checkered diamonds called a Harlequin pattern and bright red, pursed lips.