Masks and Costume in the Carnival of Venice

The Carnival of Venice, rich in history, traditions and enchanting suggestions, is a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in the baroque atmosphere of a city full of charm. Venice is full of celebrations that drag the visitor into a kaleidoscope of emotions. The ancient Venetian palaces, architectural jewels, host luxurious masked parties that evoke the transgressive atmospheres, a golden age for carnival celebrations as evidenced by the particular shapes of the costumes worn with pride by the Venetians.

Venice Carnival is one traditions with strong foundation in culture with the significance and beauty. The whole world also gathers every year around this time gaze on its grandeur. Every year, the Venice Carnival turns the city into a spectacular riot of pageantry, colour, musical performances, fireworks displays and glamorous Venetian balls. If you want to experience the exotic atmosphere of Venice at its best, carnival is the time to go.

Venice Carnival
The Venice carnival is the most anticipated event of the year in Venice: masquerade, shows, music, games and colors. The city goes crazy and fills with a cheering crowd. In the living room of Piazza San Marco and in the thousands of other fields you can freely attend theatrical performances and costume parades, concerts and historical re-enactments, entertainment for children and nights of wild dancing, gastronomic tastings and other sensory experiences.

During the Carnival the activities of the Venetians took a back seat, and they gave much of their time to celebrations, pranks, entertainment and shows that were staged throughout the city, especially in Piazza San Marco, along the Riva degli Schiavoni and in all major fields of Venice.

There were attractions of all kinds: jugglers, acrobats, musicians, dancers, shows with animals and various other performances, which entertained a colorful audience of all ages and social classes, with the most imaginative and disparate costumes. Street vendors sold all kinds of merchandise, from seasonal fruit to rich fabrics, from spices to foods from distant countries.

In addition to the large events in open places, small representations and shows of all kinds (even very transgressive) soon spread to private homes, theaters and cafes in the city. In the mansions of the sumptuous Venetian palaces, grandiose and very long parties with lavish masked balls began to be hosted.

In the 18th centurythat the Venice Carnival reaches its maximum splendor and international recognition, becoming famous and prestigious throughout Europe of the time, constituting a tourist attraction and a popular destination for thousands of festive visitors.

Venice during the Carnival is spellbinding, with a historically rich mixture of performance and dining, and, of course, the magnificent costumes, including the extravagant masks for which Venice is so famous. If you have never had a romantic encounter in Venice, perhaps you have an opportunity to learn why countless generations of impassioned lovers have exclaimed that romance in Venice is the best romance there is. As every year there is great expectation for the Venetian festival, which always attracts a large number of tourists from all over Italy and the world for the occasion.

In the Carnival, the streets are filled with celebrants dressed in luxurious, festive garb; experiencing Venice during the Carnival is like stepping back in time, with no modern buildings to spoil the illusion. One can wander the streets, taking in the costumes and street performances, or attend an evening party, an opera or concert, in one of the palaces or hotels accustomed to hosting royalty.

“Experiencing” the Carnival in Venice mean to savour every moment of the festival by definition. Venice offer a rich calendar of performances, shows and evens linked to its products of excellence. Literary, musical and theatrical tradition, both national and international, offers several suggestions that inspire the artistic and scenic choices.

The glamorous side of Carnival is that of the palace parties: stuccos, golds, velvets and candles, the experience is overwhelming and immersive: between food and perfumes couples of fairies and admirer, queens and courtiers, great leaders, doges, cardinals, comedians and dancers welcome guests who in a few minutes forget the era to which they belong.

Visitors could attend the Gallery of Wonders at the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi Palace, where fine art, comedic performances and delicious food combine with wild costumes and dancing long into the night. The palace then hosts a number of similar events, so nobody need to miss out. Throughout the Carnival of Venice, visitors can also attend masked costume contests in the Piazza San Marco. Contestants are graded on the authenticity of their outfits before the Grand Finale.

All of an evening you might experience walking up the stairs of a candlelit palace, expecting Casanova to make his advances; enjoying cocktails over the glimmering Grand Canal, abandoning your senses to pleasure; all while revealing your true identity only to carefully chosen intimates. After all this extravagance perhaps your night is completed by a mysterious, romantic, moonlight tryst, leaving you entranced and breathless, ready to meet the whole experience again the following day.

Venetian mask
The Carnival gave impetus to a growing number of masked shows staged in the city’s private theaters. The events were often set up and financed by noble Venetian families, who soon saw the need to entrust the increasingly elaborate representations to great artists and true acting professionals. These shows in private venues were initially reserved for a small audience of noble families. Towards the middle of the sixteenth century, following the great development and demand for this artistic genre, numerous other small theaters opened in Venice, also aimed at a popular audience.

Masks have always been an important feature of the Venetian carnival. Traditionally people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day, December 26) and the end of the carnival season at midnight of Shrove Tuesday (movable, but during February or early March). As masks were also allowed on Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas, people could spend a large portion of the year in disguise.

Towards the beginning of the seventeenth century, with the increase in the number and quality of theatrical companies, now formed by professional artists and also appreciated outside the city, real activities related to the world of theatrical comedy, stage arts and crafts of costumes and masks.

Numerous and talented theatrical authors emerged, becoming famous by representing increasingly refined and complex works. The definition of commedia dell’arte was born in Venice and dates back to 1750, when the playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni introduced it in his comedy Il teatro comico.

Maskmakers enjoyed a special position in society, with their own laws and their own guild, with their own statute dated 10 April 1436. Mascherari belonged to the fringe of painters and were helped in their task by sign-painters who drew faces onto plaster in a range of different shapes and paying extreme.

Venetian masks can be made of leather, porcelain or using the original glass technique. The original masks were rather simple in design, decoration, and often had a symbolic and practical function. Nowadays, most Italian masks are made with the application of gesso and gold leaf and are hand-painted using natural feathers and gems to decorate. However, this makes them rather expensive when compared to the widespread, low-quality masks produced mainly by American factories. This competition accelerates the decline of this historical craftsmanship peculiar to the city of Venice.

Several distinct styles of mask are worn in the Venice Carnival, some with identifying names. People with different occupations wore different masks.

The bauta is a mask, today often heavily gilded though originally simple stark white, which is designed to comfortably cover the entire face; this traditional grotesque piece of art was characterized by the inclusion of an over-prominent nose, a thick supraorbital ridge, a projecting “chin line”, and no mouth. The mask’s beak-like chin is designed to enable the wearer to talk, eat, and drink without having to remove it, thereby preserving the wearer’s anonymity. The bauta was often accompanied by a red or black cape and a tricorn.

In the 18th century, together with a black circular or semicircular clasped cape called a tabarro (and zendale hood) the bauta had become a standardized society mask and disguise regulated by the Venetian government. It was obligatory to wear it at certain political decision-making events when all citizens were required to act anonymously as peers. Only citizens (i.e., men) had the right to use the bauta. Its role was similar to the anonymizing processes invented to guarantee general, direct, free, equal and secret ballots in modern democracies. Also, the bearing of weapons along with the mask was specifically prohibited by law and enforceable by the Venetian police.

Given this history and its grotesque design elements, the bauta was usually worn by men, but many paintings done in the 18th century also depict women wearing this mask and tricorn hat. The Ridotto and The Perfume Seller by Pietro Longhi are two examples of this from the 1750s.

The Colombina (also known as Columbine and as a Colombino) is a half-mask, only covering the wearer’s eyes, nose, and upper cheeks. It is often highly decorated with gold, silver, crystals, and feathers. It is held up to the face by a baton or is tied with ribbon as with most other Venetian masks. The Colombina mask is named after a stock character in the Commedia dell’arte: Colombina was a maidservant and soubrette who was an adored part of the Italian theatre for generations. It is said it was designed for an actress because she did not wish to have her beautiful face covered completely. In fact, the Colombina is entirely a modern creation. There are no historic paintings depicting its use on the stage or in social life. While both men and women now wear this mask, it began as a woman’s analog to the bauta.

The Plague Doctor
The Medico della peste, with its long beak, is one of the most bizarre and recognizable of the Venetian masks, though it did not start out as carnival mask at all but as a method of preventing the spread of disease. The striking design originates from 17th-century French physician Charles de Lorme who adopted the mask together with other sanitary precautions while treating plague victims. The mask is often white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eyeholes covered with crystal discs, creating a bespectacled effect. Its use as a carnival mask is entirely a modern convention, and today these masks are often much more decorative. Although the mask and costume is worn almost exclusively by males, the enhancement in decoration also suggests that women are now more likely to wear the mask and costume than in previous years at the Carnival.

The plague doctors who followed De Lorme’s example wore the usual black hat and long black cloak as well as the mask, white gloves and a staff (so as to be able to move patients without having to come into physical contact with them). They hoped these precautions would prevent them contracting the disease. The mask was originally beaked with a purpose in congruence with the miasmatic theory of disease practiced at that time: the hollow beak allowed for the containment of flowers and other sweet-smelling substances designed to keep away the foul odors that were thought to spread infection. Those who wear the plague doctor mask often also wear the associated clothing of the plague doctor. The popularity of the Medico della peste among carnival celebrants can be seen as a memento mori.

Moretta/Servetta muta
The moretta (meaning dark one) or servetta muta (meaning mute servant woman) was a small strapless black velvet oval mask with wide eyeholes and no lips or mouth worn by patrician women. It derived from the visard mask invented in France in the sixteenth century, but differed in not having a hole to speak through. The mask was only just large enough to conceal a woman’s identity and was held in place by the wearer biting on a button or bit (the women wearing this mask were unable to speak, hence muta) and was often finished off with a veil. The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi, sometimes called Clara the rhinoceros, depicts this mask in use in 1751. It fell into disuse about 1760.

The volto or larva is the iconic modern Venetian mask: it is often made of stark white porcelain or thick plastic, though also frequently gilded and decorated, and is commonly worn with a tricorn and cloak. The “volto” is also quite heavier than a typical mask and has a much tighter fit; many people who experience claustrophobia do not wear the “volto” at the Carnival. If worn by a woman, who are the most common wearers of the volto at the modern festival, it is typically worn with a headdress, scarf, veil, another mask, or a combination of all four. It is secured in the back with a ribbon.

Unlike the moretta muta, the volto covers the entire face of the wearer including the whole of the chin. Unlike a typical mask, it also extends farther back to just before the ears and upwards to the top of the forehead; also unlike the moretta muta, it depicts the nose and lips in simple facial expressions. Unlike the bauta, the volto cannot be worn while eating and drinking because the coverage of the chin and cheeks is too complete and tight.

Another classic character from the Italian stage, Pantalone, possibly stemming from the Italian “pianta il leone” referencing the conquests of Venice and the origin of this character, is usually represented as a sad old man with an oversized nose like the beak of a crow with high brows and slanted eyes (meant to signify intelligence on the stage). Like other commedia masks, Pantalone is also a half mask. This mask is almost exclusively worn by men, although its popularity at the modern festival has declined.

Arlecchino, meaning harlequin in Italian, is a zanni character of the commedia. He is meant to be a kind of “noble savage”, devoid of reason and full of emotion, a peasant, a servant, even a slave. His originally wooden and later leather half-mask painted black depicts him as having a short, blunt, ape-like nose, a set of wide, round, arching eyebrows, a rounded beard, and always a “bump” upon his forehead meant to signify a devil’s horn. He is a theatrical counterpoint to and often servant of Pantalone, and the two characters often appeared together on the stage.

The Zanni class of characters is another classic of the stage. Theirs is a half mask in leather, presenting themselves with low forehead, bulging eyebrows and a long nose with a reverse curve towards the end. It is said that the longer the nose, the more stupid the character. The low forehead is also seen as a sign of stupidity. The zanni are often the supporting characters in a commedia performance, often fulfilling similar societal roles as Arlecchino, though with smaller parts

Carnival costumes
During the days of Carnival, as in the splendid Venetian eighteenth century, the city and St. Mark’s Square above all, are filled with splendid figures who stage all the opulence and elegance of their costumes, baroque and sophisticated.

Those who wear period costumes certainly stand out for their opulence and richness of details. The ones that capture the most attention are the richest and most elaborate costumes, which recall the glorious splendor of the Serenissima. Precious and sophisticated dresses, made with abundance and precision by specialized ateliers, cover bodies that move lightly around the city, enchanting anyone who meets their gaze: the magical dresses take us back in time to experience the old Venice.

These were highly refined dresses, which uncovered more than covered, making the bodies of the ladies who wore them sensual and irreverent: nothing to do with certain austerities of the time. An extremely elegant fashion which was shown above all in the long period of Carnival.

The female bodies were squeezed into tight bodices stiffened by whalebones and the necklines were wide and deep revealing florid breasts, while the skirts were sinuously wide thanks to ingenious internal supports. Made with precious fabrics and silks that came to the Lagoon from the distant lands of the East, they were always enriched by Burano lace, the pride of every woman of the time. The feet wore high shoes that could even reach 50 centimeters in height, called calcagnini or ciopine, which repaid in elegance because they slender the figure but put a strain on the balance of the ladies.

To complete the outfit there were accessories, very important: gloves, handbags and the inevitable fan, essential for visual communication, above all a weapon of seduction that allowed to hide the eyes or part of the face to hide smiles or disappointment.

The make-up of the face and the way to style the hair were also fundamental. The dictates of beauty of the time imposed porcelain faces obtained by whitening the skin with white lead creams, which gave not only a diaphanous appearance but also well smoothed to the point of hiding any imperfection: a sort of facelift of other times.

They then proceeded to give a touch of color to the cheeks and lips with products made with materials of dubious origin. Each lady completed her personal make-up with a fake mole: it could be made on the outer corner of the lips or eye, or on the mouth or even on the nose, and was considered of great sensuality.

The hairstyles were instead very baroque: complex structures allowed the creation of very structured hairstyles, voluminous and so high as to compromise the health of the cervical! They were then usually whitewashed with white powders.

The men wore clothes made with fabrics from the East, such as velvet and damask, and did not disdain embroidery and lace. Their attire was usually made with a tailcoat, a shirt always white and tight shorts just below the knees, from which the silk stockings peeked out. The outfit was completed by a headdress and a long black cloak, in silk or wool, called tabarro.

With the right dress, mmersing yourself in the streets and breathing the air of the Venice of yesteryear is certainly a unique and unforgettable experience. The wonder of the carnival also lies in the freedom, that of wearing what you want, perhaps giving unbridled vent to your creativity.

Venice provides a lot of professional clothing rental services, usually around 300 to 600 euros, and the price fluctuates according to different designs and fabrics. It also provides professional clothing customization services, and a set of tailor-made clothing may cost as much as thousands of euros.