Greed, envy, jealousy, happiness, beauty and love. Though they conceal a wearer’s face, the masks of the Venetian Carnival can reveal an entire spectrum of emotion.
Usually made of leather or porcelain, many Venetian masks provide wearers with exaggerated features—a long, pointy nose or a rounded brow, for instance—meant to portray particular character traits or emotions while protecting the wearer’s identity. Popular masks include those from Italy’s Commedia dell’arte theatre tradition, which provided prototypes for many character types still found in modern theatre, film and television.
While the original motive for mask-wearing in Venice remains unclear, the earliest mention of Venetian masks dates to May 2, 1268, when a decree made it illegal to throw scented eggs or gamble (which is to say, cause mischief or try to escape one’s debts) while wearing a mask. Later laws would prohibit the wearing of masks while entering nuns’ parlours, giving us some idea of just how—ahem—libertine the Venetians of the day were.
The Venetian Carnival itself began as the celebration of a military victory by the Republic of Venice over the Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162, and continued for centuries until it was outlawed by the Austrian government (which then ruled Venice) in 1797, at which point mask-wearing became a rare and restricted practice.
The Carnival was revived by the Italian government in 1979, and each year the streets and canals swell with medieval masks and the elaborate costumes that accompany them, restoring the city’s rich culture of Venetian masks and pageantry.