Venice Masks

The deep bond of Venetian Carnival Mask History with tradition, theater and entertainment

The Venetian Carnival Mask History is lost in the labyrinth of time, in a charming story in which the real historical facts are blurred with a mix of tradition and folklore. So, what is carnival mask? Since the beginning of the celebrations, Carnival in Venice Costumesand in particular, masks have been the very soul of Carnival, a way to have fun and entertain in total anonymity: Venice carnival mask meanings preserve numerous examples, from the famous Venice carnival masquerades, which accounted for one of the most singular moments of the whole Carnival celebration, to the close relationship between commedia dell'arte and Carnival, which started almost by accident and became one of the most interesting kinds of theatrical representation.

Venice Masks

Whispered among the narrow streets of the old town or yelled from the windows of majestic palaces, 'Good morning Siora Mask' was the customary greeting of Venetians during the period of Carnival, when personal identity, gender and social class magically disappeared under the spell of the beautiful Venice Carnival masks.


Among the Carnival masks, Bauta (with emphasis on the u) is a typical Venetian mask, worn both during the Carnival celebrations and at other times, due to its simplicity and versatility. The origin of Bauta is lost in time: the use of this mask, by men and women, has intensified since the eighteenth century and continued into modern Carnival. The Venice Bauta can be divided into: the Bauta mask or Larva (Latin: 'ghost' or 'mask'), a simple mask that hides the face but allows for eating and drinking, and the Bauta costume, a Venice Carnival dress including a mantle, or cloak, dark in color, a black three-cornered hat and the Larva. Among the different Venice Carnival outfits, the Bauta has always had a leading role. Used often in theatre and festivals, the Venetian Bauta was also worn in daily life, to court or be courted in mutual anonymity.


The origin of the mantle is very old, used with different variations already in Roman times and the Middle Ages. The mantle is a plain cloth cloak, which doubles over the shoulders, decorated with frills, fringes and a bow. The colour could vary depending on the occasion and was often worn by women. In addition to being used as one of the typical Venetian masks - mantle, Bauta and a three-cornered hat - the use of the cloak in Venice has often taken on negative implications. To prevent the cloak from becoming a hiding place for weapons and dangerous objects, thereby ruining the atmosphere of the Carnival and the Carnival mask meaning, the Venice Republic issued numerous decrees with heavy penalties for violators.


Among the Carnival masks of Venice, the favorite of women was the Moretta, a small oval mask in dark velvet, to be worn along with a small hat and sophisticated clothes. It is distinguished from other traditional Venice Carnival mask types for being 'mute': the mask was worn on the face whilst holding in the mouth a button attached to its underside. Originally from France, the Moretta quickly spread to Venice because it is particularly suited to feminine features.


Another great classic amongst Venetian costumes is the Gnaga, worn by men to portray female figures. The traditional Gnaga costume includes female clothing and a mask with the likeness of a female cat. During the festivities of the Carnival of Venice, the mask could be supplemented by a basket held under the arm, which usually contained a kitten.


Venice carnival costumes history proceeds hand in hand through the centuries with Venice Carnival mask history, through a relationship of mutual dependence that cannot be divided or broken. The use of the mask was so widespread that people, who could not afford the luxurious costumes of the Carnival of Venice, would lease them from the revendigola. Wearing traditional Venetian masks or Venice Carnival gowns one could completely disguise their identity to become someone new and mysterious. Venice Carnival and masks are an inseparable pairing: the joyful participation in the celebrations of the Venetians in disguise is the essence of the Carnival of Venice, the symbol of care freeness and freedom from daily habits, prejudices and gossip.


With the widespread use of Venetian Carnival outfits and fascinating Venetian carnival masks, a true Carnival business was started and progressively developed in Venice. From the thirteenth century, the Venice Carnival history of masks began to be documented with news on their production, schools and construction techniques. In the same period the first tools for working clay, papier-mâché, plaster and gauze, traditionally used in the production of Venetian masks, started to appear. The craftsmen who made masks, called maschereri were real artists who created detailed and imaginative masks, with decorations, embroideries, beads, feathers and so on.


From the beginning, Venice Carnival masks were worn both during official celebrations, which started on Boxing Day – the old starting date of the Carnival of Venice - until midnight of Shrove Tuesday, and on the days of the Ascension. Additionally, the wearing of Tabarro and Bauta was allowed during the most important official holidays of the Venice Republic.


There were also many Carnival theatre events: Venice strongly supported masked shows, initially in private homes and later also in important theaters. Generally organized by the wealthy families of Venice, the prestigious theater events of the Venice Carnival enjoyed a huge success, so as to promote the development of a dedicated group of professionals. From the middle of the 16th many small theatres opened in Venice to give folks the opportunity to take part in the lively events in theatres.


Towards the beginning of the 17th century, the rise of theatre companies fostered the creation of activities related to the world of theatre comedy and the crafting of Venetian costumes and Venetian masks. Talented play writers emerged with increasingly sophisticated and complex works... the very definition of commedia dell’arte was born in Venice around 1750, thanks to Carlo Goldoni who introduced the term in his comedy 'The comical theatre'. His works were performed during the Carnival of Venice and resumed a simple and frugal fun, as Goldoni himself did not approve of the luxury and transgression of the festivities. The theatre of Goldoni and the Carnival were in such harmony that the works of the Venetian commedia dell'arte are considered a valuable source of documentation on the Venice Carnival celebration.


Venetian masks are famous for the historic masquerades set up by young Venetian nobles. Gathered in the so-called Compagnia della Calza, due to the different colour socks being worn, they had the task of designing and setting up the shows during the Venice carnival of masks. Between 1487 and 1565 there were 23 active Compagnie della calza in Venice.


Here are the Carnival Venice mask names that have remained in history:

  • For the battle of the Christian forces at Lepanto a masquerade of floats was set up during the Carnival where the Faith, with its foot on a chained dragon, enthroned followed by the theological Virtues, muse of the generals, the Victory towering over the defeated and, finally, the Death with a scythe in its hand.
  • 1589: to discredit a certain Marco Bragadino of Cyprus - a Capuchin friar who was going around Venice claiming to be able to make gold - the theologian Paolo Sarpi had some young patricians dressed as Mammona, the god of wealth, then made them cross Venice on a gondola with stills and crucibles pretending to be making gold.
  • 1664: during the wedding of a member of the Cornaro family, a splendid procession was organized that passed through Venice and stopped at the monastery of St Lorenzo and St Zaccaria, home of the nuns of noble birth.
  • February 1679: a horseback masquerade with Indians, Negroes, Turks and Tartars who, after having fought successfully against six monsters, began to dance.
  • Carnival 1696: a strange masquerade with a carriage drawn by six horses preceded by richly dressed lackeys.
  • 1706: patricians dressed with Persians dresses crossed Venice to perform in the main nun monasteries with wind instruments.
  • February 1755: Masked men in white and turquoise uniforms that, with roll of drums and banners, went round Venice.
By Insidecom Editorial Staff