The origin of Venice’s masks is inextricably linked to that of Carnival. During the event they assumed a playful and transgressive meaning, allowing people to indulge in excesses while maintaining anonymity.
Some masks survived over history, becoming representative objects of Venetian culture. Which ones are we talking about?
The Bauta was a disguise, used indiscriminately by men and women, that involved the use of specific clothing. It consisted of a tabarro, which is a cloak that closes only by a lacing under the chin, a tricorno (the classic three-pointed hat) and a mask nicknamed “larva.”
The “larva” was white in color; the term comes from Latin and means “ghost.” Its open, sail-like shape at the level of the mouth allowed the wearer to drink and eat without having to remove it.
Another famous mask, for female use only, was the Moretta so called because of its black color. Its primary function was quite different from the worldly and frivolous purposes of Carnival: used by French ladies to visit nuns, it spread widely in Venice because of its ability to enhance female features.
It was worn by holding it in the mouth by means of a small pin: this is why it was called a “mute” mask, which did not allow women to speak. This feature, due to the standards of beauty of the time, was greatly appreciated by men.
The costume was then completed by veils and wide-brimmed hats.
The Gnaga mask depicts the face of a cat: the terms “gnau” or “gnao,” in Venetian, mean precisely “meowing”. It was used exclusively for men who disguised themselves as women.
The costume consisted of a long nurse’s dress, a white bonnet covering the head, and a basket in which kittens were placed. The wearer mimicked female attitudes in a caricatured way, alternating them with mocking meowing. Often the “Gnaghe” were accompanied by young men disguised as boys.
The mask reflects the essence of the historic Venetian Carnival: an occasion where established social customs were abandoned, and roles were reversed.
OTHER VENETIAN MASKS
Other noteworthy masks, developed for different reasons than those of Carnevale albeit in parallel, are the “Zanni” and the plague doctor mask.
The “Zanni” was a character of the Commedia dell’Arte who represented a servant coming from the countryside, clever, coarse and reluctant to control his animal instincts. This is the famous mask with the long, hooked nose, which is today popular as a souvenir in the stalls of Venice.
With a much more practical function, on the other hand, the plague mask was used by doctors as protection from miasma, a toxic air that was said (before the advent of modern science) to cause the infamous disease. Its shape is highly recognizable: a bird’s face with an aquiline beak and drawn glasses. The beak served as a container for herbs and scented essences, which it was believed that they could purify the air from toxic effluvia, thus preventing people from falling ill due the plague.
In more recent times it lost its primary purpose, to also become a Carnival mask, with a sinister appearance but still full of ancient charm.
The world of Venetian masks, however, does not stop here. Many other masks have been created over the centuries, thanks in part to the advent of the Commedia dell’Arte in the sixteenth century. They represent real characters, each with its own personality and unique characteristics.