Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Masks of Carnival...

Parade floats.  Beads.  Revelry.  All elements of the Fat Tuesday festivities known as Mardi Gras.  Throw in scantily clad women in feather and rhinestone covered costumes, and the energetic 2/4 steps of the rhythmic Samba, and you have the Brazilian Carnival celebration.  Last, and definitely not least, is the February celebration I look the most forward to...

Venice's Carnival.  One of the high items on my 'Bucket List' is to witness Carnival in person.  Venice is such a beautiful, and romantic place.  The canals twisting their way through the buildings, the gondoliers "voga alla veneziana" (rowing venetian style), the long oar turning rhythmically on its "forcola" (oar rest).

There is something so Gothic about Carnival.  So romantic.  The feature of the celebration I most look forward to seeing are images of the revelers in their ornate masks.  The Venetian mask has been around for centuries, and is most associated with the protection of the wearers identity.  The early masks were constructed of paper-mache, and were adorned with a number of things, including feathers, gems, and fabric.

Unlike some other European nations of antiquity, all citizens of Venice enjoyed a high standard of living. Venice capitalized on its position and gains, long before other countries realized the value of the market economy.  Venice enjoyed an unequaled level of wealth, and their unique culture was born.  Of great importance was the need to conceal ones' identity in daily life, to perform daily activities.  Venice is relatively small.  Citizens had places and people to visit, and they didn't always want others to know what their dealings were.

The masks made everyone "equal".  When masked, a servant could be mistaken for a nobleman, and vice-versa.  Citizens could be questioned by law enforcers or spies without any fear of their true identity being disclosed, or any retribution.  Masks maintained the morale of the one had a 'face', but everyone had a voice.

Of course, there were those that took advantage of the situation.  Sexual promiscuity was accepted, and became very commonplace.  Gambling was going on everywhere (convents included), at every hour of the day and night. Clothing became more revealing.  Members of the clergy also wore masks, and ornate clothing, engaging in the same activities as everyone else.  Rome didn't interfere as the Republic continued to send them generous donations.

Venice plummeted into a pit of moral decay.  In time, the daily wearing of masks was banned, and only allowed during a few months of the year.  In the last year of the Republic, the three month period was designated, starting on December 26th.

The 'masquerade' went through periods of being outlawed by the Catholic Church, after the 1100's.  The policy they set did eventually lead them to full acceptance when they declared that the period of the year starting on December 26th, and ending on Shrove Tuesday was free for wearing full, decadent Venetian masks/attire.

The period became what is now known as the pre-Lent celebration, Carnival. Oddly enough, Carnival is said to mean "remove meat".  Carnival would drop off in popularity as cultural production faltered in Venice  during the Enlightenment (Age of Reason) in the 18th century.  After a long absence, it was brought back in 1979.  The Italian government made the decision to bring history and culture back to Venice, Carnival being their plans' centerpiece.

I have always wanted to own a Venetian mask.  They are so exquisite.  The central theme of the Carnival celebration, there are seven basic mask designs:

"Bauta" (Larva, Casanova) ~ A Very famous design, it is the main mask worn during the festivities. Historically, it was used to hide a wearer's identity, so they could interact more freely with others outside of everyday convention.  It was used for personal (romantic) purposes, and criminal purposes.  The name/term "Bauta" doesn't have a definite interpretation.  It might come from the German word "behten" (to protect).  Or the Italian term for a monster "Bau" or "Babau", used to frighten children.

Kings and Princes used it as a disguise so they could walk among the citizens unnoticed.  In the 18th century, it became a society mask and design regulated by the government.  Certain individuals were obligated to wear a Bauta for political voting events where anonymity was required.

The original Bauta disguise was made up of a white face shaped mask, a 3 cornered (tricorne) hat, a black veil of silk, and a black cloak (taborro) or mantle.  The outfit was worn by both women and men.

"Dama" (Valeri, Salome, Regina, Olga, Fantasia) ~ Comes in many variations and corresponds to the ladies of the Cinquecento (period of Titian).  They covered themselves in expensive and elaborate costumes, wigs, and jewelry. These days, it is the most popular design at Carnival.

"Gatto" ~ It is easy to see that the name of the mask is Italian for 'cat'. Cats were scarce in Venice, and became a traditional and popular mask.

"Jester"/male - "Jolly"/female ~ Clown associated with the Middle Ages. Starting in Italy, the Jester would move through all of Europe.  In the Middle Ages, the Jester was seen as the symbolic twin of the King.  Also known as 'fools', they were thought to be either gifted or cursed, and thought of as touched by God with a childlike madness. Jesters wore brightly colored clothing.  Their hat was typically a floppy three pointed design with a jingle bell at the tip of each point.  Other things distinct about the Jester were his mock sceptre (known as a "bauble" or "marotte"), and his laughter.

"Moretta"Servetta Muta (dumb maid-servant), it was an oval shaped mask made of black velvet.  It covered all but the outer edges of the face, and was held in place by a small bit held between the wearers' teeth.  usually worn by women visiting convents.  Invented in France, it quickly gained popularity in Venice as it brought out the woman's features.

"Volto" ~ Meaning 'face' in Italian, the Volto was also known as the Citizen mask, historically worn by the Common People.

(Dottore Peste)
"Dottore Peste" ( Medico della Peste)~ This one is a more modern mask, with a unique history.  A disguise used by Plague Doctors, it was worn when visiting those stricken with the plague.  It's not so much a mask as a disguise.  The outfit consisted of a hat that showed the wearer to be a doctor, a mask to protect the face (it had crystal eyes to protect the wearers' eyes, and a beak that was stuffed with herbs and spices to purify the air breathed by the doctor), a wooden stick to push plague victims that came to close away, leather gloves, a gown sealed with wax on the inside, and high boots.

Looking at these beautiful masks put me in mind of a book series by my favorite author, Tanith Lee.  "The Secret Books of Venus" are set in 18th Century Venice.  The following is an excerpt from one of my earlier posts about Tanith.  If you would like to read the full post, click here.

The Secret Books of Venus

  • Faces Under Water
  • Saint Fire
  • A Bed of Earth
  • Venus Preserved
These are just brilliant.  Dark, romantic, and with a peppering of violence that fits into the story line in such a way that it isn't completely repugnant.  It is necessary to the flow of the story.  I am usually quite disappointed with series because a wonderful opener can be deflated with a sub-par follow-up novel. This was to be the second series of Tanith's that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring.

The series takes place in 18th century Venice.  Book one opens with the hedonistic atmosphere of Carnival.  The festive turns deadly when Furian Furiano finds a mask of Apollo floating in the murky waters of the canals.  The mask hides a sinister art...that of the mask maker.

Furian becomes trapped in a bizarre web of love and evil, causing him to stumble on a macabre society of murderers.  A beautiful and elusive woman, Eurydiche, holds the key to the murders.  As she leads Furian into a labyrinth of ancient alchemy and black magic, he begins to realize that there are secrets in his own past linking him to her.


  1. Wonderful pictures and very interesting facts. I was just looking for info on the Bauta, but now I find myself more interested in the whole Carnival. Thanks!

  2. Exquisite pictures and a treasure trove of information. Thank you very much!

  3. Thank you. It was particularly interesting learning about the Bauta mask. I have always found it fascinating. I never imagined it would have such a rich history.

  4. Hi I have a mask which belonged to my dad, is there any way to upload pic and to get more info on it? Thanks.