At Large  August 17, 2022  Effie Jackson

The History of Venetian Masks

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, 1934.

Andreas Altomonte, A Masked Ball in Bohemia, 1748. Oil on canvas. 19 x 38 in. (48.3 x 96.5 cm.).

The Venetian masquerade mask was a social staple of holiday ritual and celebration during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. These celebrations, known as the Venice Carnival, served as an exorbitant consumption period for Catholics to enjoy themselves from the day after Christmas through Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

Originally, the mask was adorned by members of all socioeconomic classes to conceal identity. This was necessary since most legal and moral boundaries were blurred during this period, and so were the Venetian Republic’s rules regarding upper and lower social classes intermingling. Originating in the fourteenth century, the Venetian mask was originally intended to serve as a method of inclusiveness and creating one dominant Venetian culture as opposed to one that reflected only the interests and wills of the elite.

Despite the chaos that came along with the Carnival—such as political assassination, public drunkenness, theft, and so on—African history and culture scholar Raphael Chijioke Njoku suggests that the mask has more ancient religious roots than art historians originally thought.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1982.

Niccolò Cavalli After Francesco Maggiotto, Three half-length figures from a Venetian carnival,1750–1822. Etching and engraving.

Njoku asserts that Carnival was originally a celebration of gratitude for the cycles of life and the earth, similar to other astrologically based ancient religions that honored the duality of the old and the new. One of the most remarkable findings of Njoku’s research is that the festival promoted and honored fertility and creation as a means of sustaining growth.

However, as urbanization, industrialization, and Enlightenment philosophy spread across Italy, this emphasis on, and ritual of, fertility within Carnival transformed. Ultimately, the celebrations shifted into a period of what Njoku considers slothfulness, gluttony, eroticism, and anti-establishment rhetoric. Carnival became so notoriously associated with greed, violence, and immorality that, by the eighteenth century, masks were viewed as a nuisance and were banned in most sacred spaces.

Traditionally, wearing a mask and attending Carnival was reserved exclusively to men, but by the seventeenth century women began to receive permission to don masks and participate in this celebration of freedom. Masks were originally simple in design, however, as participation in Carnival became more common and the festival grew, masks became increasingly elaborate.

Arguably, the most popular Venetian mask is the Colombina mask: An ornate half-mask, adorned with jewels, feathers, and paint. This mask is either secured with a ribbon around the head or held in place on a baton.

Wikimedia Commons.

Pietro Longhi, Il Ridotto, 1720-1790. Oil on canvas. 33.4 x 39.9 in. (85 x 101.5 cm.). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

 

The popularity of ornate masks among the lower class led to the creation of the bauta mask, a uniform white mask that covered the entire face, often paired with a black cloak and matching tricorn. The bauta mask was one of the most popular full-face masks and was commonly worn by the elite year-round by the eighteenth century.

The bauta not only hid the wearer’s identity, it became so popular that it all but erased the wearer’s gender, body type, and socioeconomic status. At this point, the bauta served as a powerful political tool since it completely erased class with its nondescript design and accompanying costume. It not only brought the elite and peasants together, it completely stripped the elite of power.

The bauta was also heavily utilized by Venetian diplomats, who often wore this look while meeting with foreign leaders and diplomats in an effort to protect the agenda of the Venetian Republic.

Wikimedia Commons.

Detail of Il Ridotto in which one can easily see a man wearing the bauta mask (right) alongside a masked woman (left). An unmasked man is also visible in the foreground.

As masquerade masks grew in popularity during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Venetian Republic used its reputation of socioeconomic harmony to its advantage. The Republic’s power began to decline over the course of the next to centuries as it faced the final Turkish-Venetian War, a dwindling aristocracy, changing trade routes, a shrinking merchant fleet, and a weakened economy.

After a significant loss of its mainland territory and the receipt of an ultimatum from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, the heart of the Venetian government (known as the Great Council) declared the Republic’s end.

Although some scholars attempt to assign a singular, historical role to the Venetian mask—often labeling it as either a vehicle for chaos or a uniting force between the elite and peasants—its fantastical allure still stands strong. The Venetian mask evolved into a tool capable of erasing, however temporarily, the lines between socioeconomic classes and identity politics.

The mask saw a resurgence during the 1970s and has been a best seller in Venetian tourist shops ever since. To this day, the Venetian Carnival is one of the oldest celebrations still going strong.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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