The history of Venetian masks from their origins to the present day

4 March 2022

The tradition of masks is an important part of the history of Venice and its Carnival, which this year is celebrated from 12 February to 1 March and is part of the celebrations for the city's 1600thanniversary.

Coloured, decorated, simple or more whimsical, masks are almost exclusively associated with this time of year, but in Venice, these particular ornamental objects are closely linked to the trade of the mascareri and their use has changed over the years, taking on different meanings and importance.

The charm of masks seduced Venice way back in the 13th century, when the first disguises began to be seen in the city's calli. This new custom was brought by women from Constantinople, who used to walk around the city with their faces covered by masks: such way of dressing immediately struck everyone, in particular the Doge Enrico Dandolo. Therefore, loved or hated, masks have always been a subject of debate in Venice.

However, it was not until the 15th century that the Serenissima officially recognised the trade of the mascareri, the craftsmen who specialised in making papier-mâché masks. This craftsmanship, handed down from generation to generation, was linked to the trade of the painters and to the work of the targheri, the craftsmen specialised in impressing painted faces on the plaster. Together, these two trades constituted one of the oldest professions in Venice, adopting a mariegola regulating their work on 10 April 1436.

The masks, made of papier-mâché and adorned with precious stones, colours and fabrics, immediately became synonymous with freedom of expression, breaking the rules of the Serenissima Republic, games, parties and the possibility of becoming whoever one wanted to be. In 1268, however, a specific law limited the use of this disguise to certain occasions, excluding Carnival and other official city festivities. For example, masks were forbidden during the so-called gioco de l'ova, in which men threw eggs filled with rose water at ladies walking through the city. Even in the days leading up to Christmas or Easter masks were not allowed in Venice, and faces could not be covered inside gambling houses or sacred places. The only exception was for girls who, from 1776, were allowed to dress up every time they went to the theatre.

In the 18th century, the use of masks in Venice was so widespread and the demand was so high that new mascareriworkshops were set up: in 1773, the city registered 12 workshops and 31 mascareri.

Of all the masks, the one that over the years has become the Venetian mask par excellence is the Bauta, which wasa costume commonly used to go to the theatre, to cafés, to gambling houses that was worn in Venice between the 15th and 16th centuries. The Bauta consists of an actual mask, plus the so-called zendale, namely a cape covering the head and shoulders, and a tricorn. This type of disguise – which even distorted the voice of its user thanks to its shape near the mouth – was allowed to be used by Venetians even on certain days when the use of masks was banned in the city, such as St Mark's Day, Ascension Day and the day when doges and procurators were elected.

In addition to the Bauta, another popular mask in the city was the Moretta, an oval-shaped, dark-velvet mask of French origin that became very popular especially among Venetian ladies. The peculiarity of this mask was that it was held in place on the face by biting a small button between the teeth, thus becoming a mute mask. 

With the fall of the Serenissima in 1797, the Austrian government banned the use of the masks, and a phase of decline began until, under the second Austrian government, the use of these ornaments during Carnival was once again permitted. Even today, masks continue to be part of a widespread craft and cultural tradition in Venice, which wants to continue to tell its story.