Historical masks and costumes of the Venetian carnival

Historical masks and costumes of the Venetian carnival

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Costumes and Masks of the Venetian Carnival

They are beautiful, unusual, mysterious, exquisite, luxurious. Venetian masks and costumes are one of the most striking phenomena of Italian reality.

Many carnival masks are variants of the masks of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, a special kind of street theater performance (from the Italian commedia dell’arte) – a type of theater, which received its development in Italy in the XVI – XVII centuries.

Commedia dell’arte was based on improvisation. Each character had his own mask, typical only for this character, and just a mask as part of the costume. It was just that and pointed to the special qualities of the character. The actor, having chosen a role, usually remained faithful to it throughout his life on stage.

Mask in Commedia dell’arte were dozens, but still considered the main four – the so-called quartet. And in the north and south of Italy, these quartets were formed differently.

The northern (Venetian) quartet traditionally included such characters as Pantalone, the Doctor, Brigella and Arlequin.

The southern (Neapolitan) quartet was dominated by Tartaglia, Coviello, Pulcinella and Scaramuccia.

The soul of Commedia dell’arte was the servants’ masks, the so-called Zanni (a distortion of the name Giovanni, extremely common in Italy).

In the northern quartet, the servants were Brighella, cunning, wicked, calculating and chatty, and Harlequin, a simpleton who never gets discouraged and is occasionally in love. Over time, this character has changed and become more complex. To make matters worse he had a rival in love – the dreamy Pierrot, whom the ingenious Arlequin always managed to beat by beating off Columbine, his maid.

Arlecchino is the dzanny of the rich old man Pantalon. Arlecchino’s costume is bright and variegated: it is made up of rhombuses of red, black, blue and green. Such a pattern symbolizes Harlequin’s extreme poverty – his clothes seem to consist of a countless number of poorly matched patches.

The character can neither read nor write, and by birth he is a peasant who left the poor village of Bergamo to go to work in prosperous Venice. Harlequin is by nature an acrobat and a clown, so his clothes should not restrict his movements. The mischievous boy carries a stick with him, which often blows other characters.

Despite his tendency to cheat, Harlequin cannot be considered a scoundrel – he just has to live somehow. He is not particularly clever and rather gluttonous (his love of food is sometimes stronger than his passion for Columbine, and his stupidity prevents him from fulfilling Pantaloon’s amorous plans).

Harlequin’s mask was black, with sinister features (according to one version, the word “Harlequin” itself comes from the name of Alichino, one of the demons of Dante’s Inferno). On his head he wore a white fedora, sometimes with fox or rabbit fur.

Other names: Bagattino, Trufaldino, Tabarrino, Tortellino, Gradelino, Polpettino, Nespolino, Bertoldino, etc.

Columbina is Inamorata’s maid. She assists her mistress in matters of the heart by deftly manipulating the other characters, who are often unequally attracted to her. The Columbine is distinguished by her coquetry, feminine insight, charm and dubious virtue.

She is dressed, like her constant suitor Harlequin, in stylized colored patches, as befits a poor girl from the provinces. Columbine’s head is adorned with a white hat to match the color of her apron. She has no mask, but her face is heavily painted, especially her eyes.

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The Pantalone is a walking target for ridicule, an old geezer who looks at girls. The Pantalone’s costume is characterized by its oversized codpiece, which symbolizes its supposed masculine strength. Usually the old man wore a dark red camisole and tight pants of the same color, a black cloak with short sleeves, and a small black cap, like a fez.

He wore a dagger or purse on his belt, and shoes were yellow Turkish shoes with sharp curved toes.

The dark brown mask had a prominent hooked nose, shaggy gray eyebrows, and the same moustache (sometimes also glasses). Pantalone’s beard protruded upwards, at times almost touching the tip of his nose, which gave the old man’s profile a particularly comical appearance.

Often in the story Pantalon wanted to marry the girl his son was in love with, and he flirted with Colombine, his daughter Isabella’s maid.

The DOTTOR is also a comic character. Although he is a man of science and law in the distant past, he gradually forgets all his knowledge and, apart from mockery, has little to show for it.

The masks of the southern, Neapolitan, quartet were not as common and popular as those of the northern quartet, with the exception of Pulcinella. Interestingly, Pulcinella (the Italian equivalent of the Russian Petrushka) is a controversial character, who could be in the play as a dullard, a sly one, a servant, a master, a coward and a bully.

The character’s name translates from Italian as “chicken” and is obviously associated with his mask, the most noticeable element of which is a large beak-like nose.

Pulcinella’s costume consists of a long baggy white blouse tied around his waist with a leather strap, spacious shapeless pants and an unusual oblong hat. He usually wore a black mask and was visibly gnarled. His age was approaching old age, which made him somewhat akin to the “northern” Pantalone.

Pedrolino or Pierino is one of the servant characters. Pedrolino is dressed in a loose white tunic with huge buttons and too long sleeves, with a round fluted collar around his neck and a hat with a small round crown on his head.

Sometimes his clothes had large pockets stuffed with souvenirs of a romantic nature. His face was always heavily whitewashed and painted, so there was no need to wear a mask.

Although Pedrolino belongs to the Zanni tribe, his character is radically different from that of Harlequin or Brighella. He is sentimental, amorous, trusting and loyal to his master. The poor man is usually tormented by his unrequited love for Columbine and by the ridicule of the other comedians, whose mental organization is not so subtle.

Jester (Jester, Jolly) – Introduced in Commedia dell’arte, this is a classic mask. The Jester first appeared in the Italian theater, then became popular throughout Europe. The costume of this character is characterized by motley and multi-colored. On his head is a cap with three “ears”, to each of which are tied bells.

It should be noted that the masks themselves as a costume element of each character were usually made of papier-mache, leather or cloth and covered actor’s face only up to the half.

The basis of the whole theater was improvisation. That is why the actors representing the characters described were, as a rule, real virtuosos with uncommon abilities, with the richest imagination and mastering literally balletic plastique.

Classical masks not associated with the theater include Bauta, the Lady of Venice, the Cat, the Plague Doctor, and Volto. Below are brief descriptions of them.

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BAUTA (bauta) – The most famous and mysterious mask. It is essentially a death mask from medieval miniatures, traditionally painted in black and white. And there is no other such mask that can completely hide a person’s identity, killing all identifying features.

It appeared in the 17th century and served as an effective disguise for members of all estates and genders. Despite its eerie appearance, it was particularly loved by the people, who wore it in combination with a long black cloak concealing the figure, and a triangular hat – tricorno .

The origin of the name is unknown (according to one version, it is related to the Italian word “bau” or “babau”, referring to an imaginary monster, which frightened small children (something like our Babai or Buca).

The bau was also considered an ideal mask for VIPs who liked to go “into the people” anonymously. The lower part of the bauta mask, hiding the mouth, is put forward, and the voice hitting the clay or leather obstacle from inside became truly unrecognizable, besides, the construction of the mask allows a person to eat and drink without exposing the face.

The bauta has no gender, age, creed, or class. To wear a bauta is to renounce pesky individuality, to renounce one’s own face, to free oneself from the norms of morality. When asked “who did this?” The bauta answers: “The mask…”

The Dama di Venezia is a very elegant and refined mask, depicting a noble Venetian beauty of the Titian era, dressed up, adorned with jewels, and with intricately arranged hair. The Lady has several versions: Liberty, Valerie, Salome, Fantasia, etc.

CAT (Gatto) . Cats were scarce in Venice, so they were treated with respect, and even dedicated one of the carnival masks.

There was a legend about a man from China who came here penniless, but with a cat. The cat, though old and decrepit, caught all the mice in the palace, and the Doge was unspeakably surprised and delighted. In short, the animal remained in Venice, and the Chinaman returned home a rich man.

One of his wealthy neighbors decided that if in Europe they were paying so much money even for a worthless animal, then they would pay a fortune for the precious silks. It was a done deal. When the merchant arrived in Venice with his cargo, the Doge was so delighted with the fabrics that he offered to give his most valuable possessions for them. The merchant agreed. So the poor old cat ended up in China again.

Volto (Volto) . Also known as Citizen, because it was worn on allowed days by ordinary townspeople. The Volto is the most neutral of all the masks, copying the classic shape of the human face. It was attached to the head with ribbons (some voltos had a handle instead of bands on the chin).

DOCTOR OF CHUMA (Medico della Peste) . In ancient times, one of the worst scourges for Venice was the plague, which visited the city several times and destroyed a huge number of lives. The mask of Medico della Peste was not worn during normal times, but during epidemics it was worn by doctors visiting patients.

Various aromatic oils and other substances were placed in its long beak-like nose, which was believed to protect against the plague. The doctor wore a dark long cloak of linen or waxed cloth over his clothes, which made him look rather like a sinister bird, and he had a special stick in his hand so as not to touch those infected with plague with his hands.

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The process of making a Venetian Carnival mask is externally simple. Take a plaster mold, smeared with petroleum jelly, and filled from the inside with a layer of papier-mache, prepared according to a special recipe. The resulting blank is dried and sanded, then holes are cut out in it for eyes. After that, proceed to decorating.

Masks are often covered with a special coat of paint to make them look like antiques. Decorating the surface is often a slow and painstaking process, using acrylic paints, gold and silver foil, enamel, varnish, expensive fabrics, rhinestones, feathers, beads … here it all depends on the imagination of the artist.

Some pieces are so beautiful and skillfully made that it is scary to put them on. The prices of such masterpieces often strike the imagination no less than their appearance.

Other carnival, masquerade, celebrity, theatrical, stage, national, historical, modern, dance, sports, fashion, film and many other costumes – read and see here in my opinion quite interesting and very beautiful

Carnival masks and costumes in Venice. The secrets of Venetian costumes

Once a year, Venice once again turns into a huge magical feast. People from all over the world dress up in period costumes. They return to the days of La Serenissima (La Serenissima – “most luminous, most glorious” – the ceremonial name of the Republic of Venice used in times past) to the old Venetian traditions.

On the first weekend of carnival, events are attended mostly by locals, so they are less focused on masks and costumes. Most costume festivals begin with the Feast of Mary (Festa delle Marie).

Feast of Mary (Festa delle Marie).

In this article, I will tell you a little bit about the history of masks and costumes and share tips on how to properly prepare for carnival. In part two, “Carnival in Venice 2020,” I will provide an overview of the various events that will take place throughout the city during Carnival 2020, as well as share with you about the historical origins of these events.

Venetian Masks and Costumes

The Venice Carnival is actually one big historical re-enactment. This holiday is famous for its stunning masks and costumes.

Unlike other carnivals in the world, most of the Venetian costumes are those of noblemen and noblewomen of a bygone era. The costumes are often over-decorated with many details. Some of them are true works of art and take a lot of time and work to make.

You will notice that many of the costumes are similar to each other, either in color or design. This is especially common in paired costumes. Sometimes outfits in the same style or color are made for one family or small group of friends.

Local tip: If you are interested in the history of Venetian dresses and costumes, I recommend a visit to the Palazzo Mocenigo in the Santa Croce district. The 20 rooms show different aspects of the life and activities of a Venetian nobleman between the 17th and 18th centuries. The museum also houses a rich collection of historical costumes and accessories.

Palazzo Mocenigo

In addition to the noblemen’s outfits, you will also see traditional masks and costumes belonging to the Commedia dell’arte (or Comedy of Masks) at the carnival. This type of folk theater has existed in Italy since the 16th century and features short impromptu performances with actors dressed in masks.

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Types of Venetian masks

Bauta mask

The Baùta is one of the most popular in Venice. It is a white mask that completely hides the face. The bauta expands towards the chin, without touching the jaw. Thus, it appears that it has no mouth. This feature allows you to eat and drink without removing the mask. It should be worn with a cape and a black hat (triangle). It was the traditional mask of society in the 18th century.


At some political decision-making events, it was mandatory to wear such masks so that everyone could act anonymously. The bow mask became a symbol of freedom of expression.

Doctor’s mask.

The plague doctor or doctor mask (Medico della Peste) was a mask with a long white nose worn by doctors visiting the sick during the plague in Venice in the 17th century. They filled the beak of the mask with aromatic substances – it was believed to protect them from contracting the plague.

Doctor of the Plague (Medico della Peste)

The Plague Doctor mask should be worn with a black cloak and white gloves. You can complete your attire and take a stick in your hand – it used to be used to avoid touching the sick. Dr. Pestilence is the scariest image of the carnival, the image of death.

Pantalone Mask

Pantalone – this mask has a hooked nose, protruding eyebrows, and a pointed beard. It depicts the old merchant Pantalone, who was a symbol of the Venetian bourgeoisie and was always thinking about business and women.


Harlequin Mask

The image of the Harlequin (Arlecchino) comes from Bergamo. The costume consists of a brightly colored checkered jacket and pants, and a fedora decorated with a rabbit or fox tail. The mask itself is black with a blunt nose and a bump on the forehead. This is due to the character’s acrobatic adventures, which usually end in bruises. Harlequin is a crook and not exactly a cute character, but he knows how to cheer you up.


Venetian Columbine Costume

The image of Colombina is Harlequin’s friend, the sly maid. Her costume is most often worn without a mask. It is a dress with patches, an apron and a white hat. If you want to add a mask, it should be a half-mask decorated with gold, silver, rhinestones and feathers. The story goes that the costume was designed at the specific request of one actress who did not want to cover her face.

The Image of Columbine (Colombina)

The Nyaga Mask

The Gnaga resembles a cat and is usually worn with a woman’s costume (sometimes also with a man’s!) combined with a white bonnet. To top it off, you can carry a basket with a kitten in it.


Other images

Pulcinella (Pulcinella) is a loser, the name translates to “chicken,” so he’s wearing a mask with a beak-like nose.


Balanzone is an imposing fat man with a tendency to exaggerated conceit, wearing an elegant suit, a wide-brimmed hat, a white collar and white cuffs, and a small mask on his face covering only his eyebrows and nose.


One of the most uncomfortable and difficult masks to wear (and therefore less popular) is the Moretta, the “mute maid.” It is a round black velvet mask without a mouth. It is held on the face by a pin which the wearer clips between her teeth, making it impossible for her to speak.


How are Venetian masks made?

Most Venetian masks are still made by hand from papier-mache. In the past, this material was preferred because it was the cheapest and easily repaired if the mask was damaged. The mask maker (“mascarer” in Italian) first makes a mold (of clay or sometimes of plaster), which can then be reused for several more masks.

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Creation of the mask

He presses the paper mass inside the mold and lets it dry. He then carefully cuts the mask to shape and begins to decorate it, either by painting or adding small decorative details.

In the end, no mask is repeated, each one will be unique in its own right. Everything is done by hand, so it not only takes a lot of time, most importantly – you need a very steady hand.

In order to preserve the ancient art of mask making in Venice, two years ago a cultural association Compagnia l’Arte dei Mascareri was created. Some of its members have been using the ancient art of mask making since 1979, when the carnival was reborn in Venice. For these 40 craftsmen, the Venice Carnival is the main event of the year!

In 2008, La Fucina dei Miracoli introduced a new type of mask based on the invention of Lucia Zerman, who created a metal filigree mask. The sketches are still made by hand, then the masks themselves are made of quality materials (hypoallergenic and waterproof paint; gold or silver electroplating) and then again decorated by hand with real Swarovski crystals.

Handmade Black Metallic Filigree Mask

The creation of metal filigree masks was inspired by the Baroque decorations. Such masks are a lighter and more comfortable version of the traditional Venetian masks. Therefore, they have become very popular.

Where can I buy a mask or costume?

Walking around Venice, you will come across many stores that sell masks.

I strongly advise you to buy a mask from a real Venetian artisan who has his own workshop. It will cost a little more, but you will be the proud owner of a unique, handmade work of art.

I personally have already bought several masks made by the Atelier Marega art workshop. She has 2 stores: on Via Fondamenta dell’Osmarin in the Castello neighborhood and in the San Polo neighborhood. They skillfully create many beautiful designs, from very simple masks to complex ones with lots of all kinds of details. You should definitely stop by this workshop.

Atelier Marega Art Workshops

Also a large number of mask stores can be found around the Ponte di Rialto – after you pass the bridge, turn left.

Ponte di Rialto

By the way, masks can be used not only for carnival, they can also serve as beautiful decorative objects in your home.

One of the famous costume designers in Venice is Francesco Briggi from the atelier “Pietro Longhi”, which he founded 20 years ago. His studio was even mentioned in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno. He is the official designer of the gowns for the 12 Maries for the Festa delle Marie, he makes costumes for the Flight of the Eagle (Volo dell’Aquila) and for the “Gallery of Wonders” masquerade ball to be held at Ca’ Vendramin Calergi Casino. You can visit the Pietro Longhi store in the San Polo area or order on the website of the atelier, choosing a luxurious suit from a detailed catalog of models with all sizes and prices.

Francesco Briggi

He knows perfectly all the sights of Italy. In his spare time he travels around the country and is willing to share his experiences in articles on Italy-Insider.

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