Venice Carnival: Everything You Could Want to Know about Venice’s Masks

Venice Carnival: Everything You Could Want to Know about Venice’s Masks

You will see countless revellers wearing masks during the Venice Carnival and we want to give you a little more information before you visit!

Here at Venice Events, we’ve been covering everything to do with the Venice Carnival — including a blog about why you should visit Venice during the Carnival and another with all of the most important dates and events throughout the Venice Carnival. We have mentioned Venice’s masks in these blogs posts, but we’ve only touch on the topic. Venice is famous for its masks and they play a very special role in the city’s history and cultural heritage. You will see countless revellers wearing masks during the Venice Carnival and we want to give you a little more information before you visit!

Why Did Venetians Wear Masks?

There is something immediately striking about Venetian masks and the first question on most visitors’ lips is Why do Venetians wear masks? However, the real question is Why did Venetians wear masks? as modern Venetians are merely honouring and enjoying the mask-wear tradition established hundreds of years before. While there are various kinds of masks in Venice — some ostentatiously decorative and others incredibly simple — most of them were worn for the same reason: anonymity.

Over the last few centuries, the Venetian aristocracy has enjoyed itself. The aristocrats wore masks so that no one would recognise them when they drank in bars, gambled, or visited houses of ill-repute… By wearing masks, the aristocracy was able to enjoy the prestige of their social standing without being held back by the risks of being recognised on the street. Nowadays, we wear masks during the Carnival because they look great and we’re harking back to our heritage, but they are not worn at any other time of year. Hundreds of years ago, however, Venetians wore masks for over half of the year. If you were gambling or drinking in night-time establishments, you could have been sitting beside a nobleman — or even the Doge — without even knowing it!

When Did Venetians Wear Masks?

Venetians didn’t wear masks all-year-round, however; there was a time-limit on when they could wear them. The law was that they could wear masks, and enjoy the anonymity they provided, between St Stephens’s Day (December the 26th) and the end of the carnival, which was always midnight on Shrove Tuesday. As the date for Shrove Tuesday changes each year, the amount of time Venetians spent in masks changed from year to year. It’s also worth noting that Venetians were also allowed to wear masks on Ascension, and from October the 5th until Christmas. So, while Venetians couldn’t wear masks all of the time, they could wear them for roughly half of the year!

The Three Different Kinds of Masks

The culture around Venice’s masks goes a little deeper, however, as there were different masks used for different things…

White Masks

White masks are simple and unassuming. They semi-accurately represent a normal person’s face and have reasonably natural features with little variation across the different designs. These masks were used, as we discussed above, to allow the wearer to move around Venice, unrecognised.

Commedia dell’arte Masks

A person wearing a Pierrot mask

Commedia dell’arte masks, on the other hand, were used to clearly classify the different characters in theatre performances. Commedia dell’arte was a form of theatre popular in Europe between 16th and 18th centuries. It was particularly popular in Venice and, as you might expect, Venice’s penchant for masks found its way into the performances. In Commedia dell’arte productions, the stories were a mixture of improvisation and script. The masks were used to convey the various stock characters that appeared in the different scenarios and stories. In most Commedia dell’arte shows, you’ll find a range of stock characters. Rather than go into every single stock character here, we’ll take a closer look at five of the most popular Commedia dell’arte characters:

  • Harlequin/Arlecchino — Arlecchino’s mask was usually only a half-mask with wide, arched eyebrows and a short, wide nose. He was a bit of a trickster and would usually pretend to be a fool to sow discord within the story.
  • Arlecchina/Colombina — Arlecchina’s character is the female counterpart to the arlecchino and her mask usually only covered half of her face. Arlecchina is usually represented as a servant, but also the most intelligent character in the show.
  • Pierrot — This character is the classic sad clown many non-Venetians will also be familiar with. In most productions, Pierrot is usually in love with Colombina. The white mask often has a little decorative black tear to show exactly who he is.
  • Pantalone — This character is an old man who normally serves as the miserly, lecherous shopkeeper in the stories. His mask has thick eyebrows and a beaked nose to give him the classic old-man look.

Carnival Masks

As if Venice didn’t already have enough masks, there were specific masks that were used only during the Venice Carnival. These masks were worn for the same reasons as the white masks, but they were also much more colourful and decorative, to mark the special occasion. The Venice Carnival has always been a huge occasion to party, and the colourful Venetian masks reflect the city’s fondness for revelry! Even though Venetians wore masks at various times of year, many more of them chose to wear masks during the Carnival! Masks allowed Venetians to live much freer, more liberated lives than many other Europeans and there’s something extremely fun and exciting about attending a masked ball or taking part in the Best Mask Contest.

What are Venetian Masks Made From?

Another question many people ask us is What are Venetian masks made from? There is no quick answer to this as all traditional Venetian masks are still made from paper mâché and then decorated. Many masks used in theatrical productions, such as the Arlecchino mask, are still made from leather. On the other hand, in Venice you will find many masks made with modern materials, such as plastic or plaster. These masks are imported and are not made by the local artisans who still use traditional materials and techniques.

That’s all we have time for today, but there’s so much more to say about Venice, its masks, and the Venice Carnival. So, keep an eye on our blog for more information about the Carnival and about our huge range of Venice walking tours and Venice boat tours. There’s still time to start planning a trip to Venice to see the carnival!