Masquerade masks were originally created in Italy as a sort of diversion for the townspeople during festival season, and caught on quickly as, once hidden behind a mask, the noblemen and women could freely mingle with the commoners during festival. Old Italian law stated the two classes were not allowed to mingle, a law which, if broken could result in severe punishment. Even in the face of such punishment, the noblemen and even clergy would mask themselves and interact with the commoners, doing their best to ferret out valuable political information from them. The design of the masquerade mask could be as plain or as elaborate as the designer could imagine. Because beads, ribbon and feathers were generally plentiful and vibrant, they were common items in masks. After their inception in Italy, the popularity of the masquerade mask spread quickly throughout the world.
Types of Venetian Masks
There are five basic Venetian mask types which are made from leather, paper mache’ or with the application of gesso and gold leaf.
The Bauta mask, with its square jawline, pointed chin and no mouth, covered the face for complete anonymity. The Bauta is one of the oldest Venetian masks, whose true name is “Larva,” meaning ghost mask. The Bauta mask was made with a jutting beaked front, enabling its wearer to both eat and drink while remaining masked—the design also changed the tone of the wearer’s voice, adding even further to the mystery. The Bauta was always either black or white and was the one mask which was not worn solely at carnival times; it was actually compulsory for women to don the Bauta mask when enjoying a night at the theater.
The beautiful black velvet oval mask, believed to enhance the feminine features, is known as a Moretta or Servetta Mutta, meaning a mute maid servant, probably because the wearer was unable to speak due to the mask’s design. The Moretta mask originated in France but became quite the rage among Venetian women who wore it while visiting the convent, perhaps to help ensure their silence. While the original Moretta mask was held in place through a button clenched between the wearer’s teeth, today’s Moretta masks favor ties.
The Larva or Volto masquerade mask is almost all white, and usually worn with a three cornered hat to complete the costume. Like the Bauta, the shape of the mask allowed the wearer to breathe and drink, therefore there was no need to take it off and expose one’s identity. The Larva masks were made of fine wax cloth, and were extremely lightweight, making them ideal for eating, dancing—and flirting!
The Columbino mask was a half-mask, held up to the face by a baton or tied with a ribbon. It was a beautiful actress from the sixteenth century who inspired the Columbino; it was rumored that she thought herself too beautiful to cover her entire face. Combine masks are generally decorated with fur, feathers, jewels, gold, silver and crystals.
The Medico Della Peste mask (The Plague Doctor). A french physician named Charles de Lorme was the mask’s designer who actually created the mask as a precaution for treating patients with the plague. Medico Della Peste is a complete full-faced mask which sports a long, narrow, hollow beak. These masks are generally solid white, with round eye holes covered with crystal discs.
The domino mask is a small rounded mask covering only the eyes and the space between them; Venetian Carnival masks were known as domini because they resembled French priests’ winter hoods, being black on the outside and white on the inside. The domino mask is similar to the masquerade mask, however lacks the embellishments and decoration.
The most popular colors of the masks were generally bright oranges, reds, blues and greens, with darker colors usually being reserved for the men’s full-face mask. Masks are still widely used today whether at a Venetian carnival, an unconventional wedding, costume balls, or special festivals such as Chinese New Year and Renaissance Fair. One of the most popular uses is in the celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Masquerade masks are also frequently used as simply interesting pieces of artwork. New Year’s Masquerade balls are also incredibly popular event—after all, wearing a beautiful masquerade mask to bring in the New Year just seems to go hand in hand! The most popular colors for New Year’s parties tend to be black and white or black and silver, and many people use stick masks for these events as they can be worn intermittently. If you are aiming to look truly stylish and elegant this New Year’s, consider the addition of a masquerade mask to your costume.