The Carnevale di Venezia is one of the world’s most recognizable festivals, with elaborate costumes and enigmatic masks adding drama and mystery to pre-Lenten or Mardi Gras celebrations in this gorgeous, sinking Italian city.
Masks are an ancient tradition in Venice, dating as far back as the 13th century, worn often–not just in the Carnival period before the Catholic period of Lent–in the past as a device to hide the wearer’s identity, gender and social status, permitting them to move freely outside the bounds of personal identity and conventions of class.
From rushing to romantic liaisons, keeping a definitive “poker face” at the gambling tables, concealing clothing and jewels that exceeded local sumptuary laws, avoiding creditors or maintaining one’s dignity when bankrupt and forced to beg, masks provided anonymity whenever busy Venetians of old needed or desired.
The bacchanalic Carnevales of the 18th century were a heyday of mask and disguise use, and today’s Venetian Carnevale costumes draw inspiration from that era of cloaks and tricorn hats.
Types of Masks
The eerie Bauta is the quintessential Venetian disguise composed of a cloak, tricorn hat and the smooth white mask known as a Volto. Historically, it was worn by both men and women.
The enigmatic white Volto (or larva, from the Latin meaning “mask” or “ghost”) is typically Venetian, traditionally made of light waxed cloth that made them easy to wear while dancing or dining. Variants on the Volto include decorative paint and jewels or elaborate Baroque gilding as worn by Tom Cruise in the 1999 Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.
Venetian mascareri, or mask makers, also drew Inspiration from leather theatre masks used by characters of the Commedia dell’arte, a wildly popular form of improvisational theatre dating back to the 16th century. Arlecchino/Harlequin’s multicoloured patches, Pulcinella/Punch’s grotesque nose and Colombina/Columbine’s pretty half-mask are often seen at the many gala events held in Venice during Carnevale.
One of the most bizarre masks seen lurking around Venice’s foggy winter piazzas at Carnival time is the Medico Della Peste, or Plague Doctor. Its peculiar long beak has its macabre origin in the sanitary precautions adopted by 16th century doctor Charles de Lorme.
Carnival celebrants wear the Medico della Peste as a memento mori, a reminder to make merry while we can for tomorrow–or at least inevitably–we die. A theme especially apt amid the sinking splendour of Venice.
Carnevale di Venezia runs from February 6 to 16, 2010.
Alitalia flies directly from Toronto to Venice’s Marco Polo airport. Air Canada ‘s flights to Venice connect through either Frankfurt or Munich, Germany.
For general information on visiting Venice, click here.