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Bauta: the most widely used Venetian mask

Bauta: the most widely used Venetian mask

One could argue that, especially during the 18th century, not wearing a mask would have looked weird, in Venice. Among the various masks made by the maschereri, though, one was worn in every season, by men, women, the rich and the poor, and it can indeed be considered as the most effective disguise: its name is Bauta or Bautta.

Bauta mask facts: the building blocks of this disguise

A Bauta is no mere mask, but rather a whole costume, aimed not only at hiding one’s face, but his, or her, social status, as well. “Wear me”, it said, “and you can be whoever you want to be”. This Venetian love for this disguise dates back as far as the 13th century, when the first document quoting its name was written. Although the etymology is not certain, the name “Bauta” may come from the same root as the German behüten, “to protect”, that is exactky what this costume does: protecting one’s identity, by means of a black hooded cape, trimmed with lace for nobles, and a black or white mask, the Volto, whose shape was unique.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo - Minuetto

The beak-like projection of its lower part allowed people wearing the Volto not only to eat and drink without taking it off, but to modify their own voice, too. This mask was made of plaster, papier-mâché or leather. Cape and mask were held together by a usually black tricorn hat, which women too put on.

Not only Casanova’s mask: a mask worn by everyone

The Bauta is well known even today, thanks to movies such as Casanova, directed by Lasse Hallström (2005), where it is worn only by the main characters, belonging to the upper class. One of the most peculiar features of the Bauta, though, is its widespread and varied use: it could indeed be put on by everyone, i.e. both by nobles and by common people. Thus members of the lower classes were also offered a chance for mixing up with the upper class, especially at their parties. This is proven by the fact that every Bautta had to be greeted, since it was impossible to know who was wearing it.

The Bauta is therefore an extremely adequate disguise: maybe this is the reason why it was shown more tolerance than other masks. Venetians were, indeed, allowed to wear it even on Saint Mark’s day (April, 25th), on the Ascension Day and during the elections of doges and procurators of the Serenissima Republic.


The old tradition of disguise: a brief history of Venetian masks

When thinking about Venetian masks, the images coming to one’s mind are the motley photos of Venice Carnival, with all their feathers, fancy hats and extravagant patterns. In effect, the world of Venetian masks is far more complex than one usually imagines. Ancient Venetians, indeed, did not put on their masks solely during the Carnival period, but rather during most of the year, at least as long as the Venetian Serenissima Republic lasted, i.e. until 1797.

In many of his paintings of the middle of the 18th century, the Venetian painter Pietro Longhi provides some pieces of evidence for such tradition and for the reason why using masks was so popular among Venetian nobles. In a painting such as Il ridotto, showing the state gambling hall, various masked and unmasked figures can be seen, some wearing a white volto, some others wearing a black moretta, among the most ancient Venetian masks. By putting those masks, Venetian nobles could turn into whoever they wanted to be, and to make their life an adventure on, just as risky as their work as merchants.

The medieval origin of Carnival

Carnival is said to date back as far as 1162, when Doge Vitale Michieli 2nd defeated Ulrich 2nd of Treven, Patriarch of Aquileia. In order to commemorate this victory, Venetians used to gather in Saint Mark’s square and slaughter a bull and 12 pigs around Shrove Thursday. But the tradition of mask-wearing is quite old, as well, since the first written source bearing witness to such usage dates back to May 2nd, 1268: this document forbade masked men, the so-called mattaccini, to throw eggs filled with rose water against ladies walking in the streets.

Masks in Venice were therefore a symbol of freedom, a way to get rid of social rules and to conceal the masked person’s identity and social status, not only during Carnival, but also in the everyday life.