18th Century, Venice. Circling about the snaky, torch-lit alleyways of the ancient city are swarms of masked men and women. Before leaving the house, members of all social ranks change their names, leaving their titles and inhibitions at the door. Men dress as women, women as men, priests pursue prostitutes, married men and women meet with lovers in unlit street corners, nobles and foreigners illicitly gamble the night away in smoky dens, covertly hidden behind barbershop entrances. Another disguise. The mask allowed people from all social classes and walks of life to take on an anonymous persona. Historians define it as a period of debauchery, hedonism, revelry, violence, scandal, and deceit. Moral codes were overturned by a population fixated on giving in to their forbidden desires and achieving ultimate pleasure. What sounds like a scene from a storybook, was real life. This was the Venetian Carnevale of the 18th century.
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII declared Carnevale a Christian holiday by placing it on the Gregorian calendar, but with the appearance of the mask, Venetian celebrations of the 18th century became known for being anything but pious. So how and when did the tradition of mask wearing begin? If only ancient city walls could talk. To uncover the answer, I went straight to the experts: the mask-makers of Venice.
Sergio Boldrin, along with his brother Massimo Boldrin, is founder and owner of La Bottega dei Mascareri, located at the foot of the historic Rialto bridge since 1984. For Boldrin, who has thirty-six years of experience in the business, the masks are not merely a costume accessory, but rich works of art carefully crafted using a centuries-old technique that transport the wearer to the strange and magical world that was 18th century Venice.
The exact date of when masks began to be worn in Venice has been highly contested by scholars, and we may never know exactly when the tradition originated. According to Boldrin, “It began around the year 1260, from a guild of painters and artists who started creating masks for political purposes. The first masks were very grotesque. They had these noses that had a phallic symbolism. The poor would go to [piazza] San Marco to protest and they would dress up in a very poor fashion, wearing these masks made of papier-mache. They did it to scare, and to contrast the lavish costumes of the bourgeois class of that period.”
Boldrin’s theory that masks began to be worn in the 13th century is supported by the fact that historians have discovered the oldest document pertaining to the use of masks in Venice. In 1268, this official record, issued by the Great Council, forbade masqueraders from playing the game of “eggs.” It’s a game associated with one mask that was particularly popular in Venice: Il Mattacino. During early mornings or, “mattinate,” of the spring and summer seasons, mischievous young men would dress as clowns. Wearing a short, all white or multicolored garb, and donning a feathered hat, these masked figures were famous for taunting city dwellers by launching perfumed eggs at balconies, groups of people, and lovers canoodling in the streets.
What started out as a game in the 13th century, evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the act of mask wearing took on a new meaning and role within Venetian society. In the 16th century, writers in Italy created La Commedia dell’Arte, “giving more dignity to those initial masks,” says Boldrin. Masks such as Arlecchino, Pantalone, Pulcinella, Colombina, and Brighella became famous symbols of Carnevale.
Davide Belloni, owner of Ca’ Macana, also one of the oldest mask making workshops in Venice that preserves the ancient craft, explains, “The disguise takes away the responsibility of one’s behavior. It always has this double meaning, to interpret a character, or figure which one isn’t. So, the poor man becomes rich, the rich man becomes poor, the noble man becomes a member of the popular class, the sinner becomes the Cardinal. At the same time, it eliminates one’s responsibility to follow rules.”
Typically, Carnevale began on December 26th and lasted until Fat Tuesday, but in the late 17th century it was extended. “[Carnevale] was a way for the bourgeois to keep the people always a bit merry, not thinking about the problems of life, especially in the decadent period of the Republic of Venice. To keep the people happy, [the bourgeois] purposefully organized a Carnevale that lasted from October to Fat Tuesday, so five or six months,” says Boldrin.
Somewhat ingeniously, the bourgeois managed to maintain a hierarchy of social power by reversing the hierarchy, so that it seemed non-existent for six months out of the year. It was the mask that made that possible.
It is important to note that there were masks that were worn even for occasions that were not particularly associated with the festivities of Carnevale. Diplomats and foreign princes attended state ceremonies and courtly receptions, watched the opera and congregated in cafes while wearing masks. For example, the Bauta was worn all year long. It covered all of a person’s features while still making it possible for the wearer to eat and drink. The mask consisted not only of a disguise that covered the face, but also a piece of woven lace that hung from it, and a black hat with three tips.
The period of the Republic of Venice in which the wealthy lived their most lavish lives was, ironically, the same period in which the Republic was beginning to lose power. Could it have been the mentality of a population fixed on unhindered pleasure, and the corruption and chaos that come with exaggerated indulgences, that caused the Republic’s eventual collapse?
Regardless, with Napoleon’s defeat of Venice in 1797, the Republic fell, and with it disappeared the festivities of Carnevale. It wasn’t until recently, in 1979, that Carnevale returned to Venice in a brilliant revival of Venetian history and culture. Artisans across Venice, like Boldrin and Belloni, began to study the ancient Venetian technique of mask-making and opened workshops throughout the historic city.
Walk into the shop of a mask-maker today, and all eyes are on you. You’ll find yourself surrounded by artistically fashioned masks of all shapes, sizes, and colors, waiting for a face to give them life. It’s undeniably eerie, but there is an irrefutable beauty and indescribable temptation hidden in the mystery of those black eyes leering at you from across the room, beckoning you to have a taste of what it would be like to be someone else. Do you dare?