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.