Tag Archives: Venetian Life

Plague Doctor | Ca' Macana

The mask of the plague doctor: a practical object turned into a symbol

There’s this guy, just outside the main entrance of our shop in Venice, who’s kind of a dreadful one: long nose, glasses, black hat and black dress. Well, his job is not the funniest one in the world, after all. He’s a plague doctor.

Doctor mask and costume during Middle Ages and Renaissance


Why on earth did plague doctors need to dress like that? In fact, it was a very useful costume, given that the waxed-canvas gown was water-repellent and could shield the doctor from his enemies, just as a soldier’s armour does. And Charles de Lorme, personal doctor to king Louis 13th and shrewd creator of this costume, was indeed inspired by a suit of armour when he designed it in 1619.

As well as this neck-to-anckle black gown, the costume includes gloves, boots and hat of waxed leather, in order to provide full protection to the doctor. Doctors wore this costume during plague epidemies, so that they could approach the afflicted, who did not have to be touched, therefore plague doctors carried a stick with them, too. But the most important part of his outfit was the mask.

The beak-like mask hold by some straps started to be used in the 14th century, and is tightly bound to ancient and medieval beliefs about plague. According to the “miasma theory”, diseases were caused by the “bad air” exhaling from corpses, marshes, polluted water and places characterised by poor hygienic conditions. Not breathing such air would prevent the plague from affecting you, as stated by such theory.

This is the reason why even the eye holes of the mask were covered by glass and why the slits corresponding to the nose were filled with aromatic herbs, dried flowers, spices or vinegar: ancient doctors indeed believed such essences could drive out the miasma.

The meaning of the plague doctor mask


This “foul air” is more of a spirit than a germ: Vitruvius, an architect in ancient Rome, describes it as “the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes”. This explains why this mask is so terrifying, a feature it has kept even after the miasma theory was rejected: the mask of the plague doctor aimed at keeping evil spirits away by frightening them, too.

And since no cure for plague was ever found in the ancient times, the Doctor mask was always associated with death, even when it became one of the masks of the Commedia dell’Arte.


The Gnaga: the essence of transgression

Beware: this story is nigh on paradox. It’s the story of a transvestite wearing a cat mask. But wait – that’s not all. Have you ever wondered why Venice’s got a “Bosom Bridge” (Ponte delle Tette) and a “Bosom street” (Fondamenta delle Tette)? Well, times get tough for all businesses, at some point. And Venetian prostitutes had to find a solution to their crisis in the 16th century, since they had fierce competitors: men. And here’s where our mask turns out: the Gnaga.

Some historical facts about the Gnaga mask


The Gnaga is one of the reasons why homosexuality spread so widely in Venice, despite its being harshly punished by hanging in the Piazzetta San Marco (“St. Mark’s little square”) and then burning. The fact is, homosexuals found a loophole in Venice’s own laws, i.e. those concerning masks: no masked person could be arrested, since wearing a mask meant becoming a mask, turning into someone who was playing a role.

This is why Gnagas could freely insult passers-by, mainly by directing obscene comments at them, with a voice so shrill it resembled a cat’s meow. “Meow” is gnau in Venetian, and that’s where this mask got its name from. Maybe it’s related to the basket full of kittens Gnagas often carried with them, too. They used to act like women, thus they often pretended to be nannies, accompanied by other men dressed up as tati and tate (“boys” and “girls”), but their language was absolutely coarse.

The features of this Venetian half mask


This light-coloured papier-mâché mask covers only the upper part of the face, and its shape can resemble either a cat’s or a pig’s muzzle. Of course, if Gnagas had to look like women, they had to dress like women, too: their costume, indeed, is composed of ordinary women’s clothes. Some sort of drag queen, just to give you an idea of it.

Gnaga-Grevembroch | Ca' Macana

How did prostitutes manage to recover from their crisis, you may be asking yourselves. Here’s the end of our story: in 1511, prostitutes made a plea to the bishop, Antonio Contarini, complaining about their lack of customers, due to the popularity of male prostitutes and homosexual encounters. In the hope of hindering such encounters, the government of Venice allowed prostitutes to lean out of their balconies half naked. Hence the architectural references to bosoms.

The intrigue of silence: all the secrets of the Moretta

The intrigue of silence: all the secrets of the Moretta

Imagine a city whose women were not shy at all, nor afraid to show their bodies: such was Venice in the 16th and 17th century. That could seem hard to believe, given that almost all the rest of the world had to cope with Puritanism and the strictness which followed the Counter-Reformation. Venice, though, has always played an exceptional role in such matters, and the freedom Venetian women enjoyed is well represented by a mask which was not aimed at hiding the wearer’s face, but rather at drawing someone’s attention: the Moretta, or Muta.

A means of enticement: the meaning of the Moretta mask

Muta means “mute”: women wearing this mask were, indeed, unspeaking, since it could only be held to the face by gripping one’s teeth on the button placed inside it. Only when she wanted to finally give an answer and some peace to the man who was addressing her, she put the mask down and revealed herself and her feelings.

The Moretta is therefore a way for women – who were, indeed, the only ones wearing this mask – to create an aura of mystery and to become intriguing, in a city where they could not simply rely on their bodies to be attractive in the eyes of men. Meaningful features of this mask are its colour and its size, as well: as the name itself reveals, the Moretta was black, though it did not completely hide a woman’s face, being a small oval covering her face only up to the eyes and down to the mouth.

Together with this mask, women often wore a long taffeta cloth, the xendal, which was originally used by ladies to cover their head and shoulders. Interestingly, this garment, which was later developed into a closed cloth wholly made of lace, was also used as the lace trim for the Bauta cape.

The ideals the Moretta is based on are not so outdated as it appears at a first sight, they are in effect quite modern in their attempt at making women more captivating by turning them into inscrutable creatures, rather than showing off their bodies. Moreover, the Moretta granted them a great degree of independence in deciding who they wanted to talk to and to start a relationship with.

Carlo Goldoni | Ca'Macana

The master of theatre in Venice: Carlo Goldoni

He lived during the golden age of masks in Venice, but well embodies their decline. He became a first-rank playwright, by creating a turning point in the Commedia dell’Arte. He is a milestone for Italian literature and a symbol for the end of the age of masks in Venice. This is the story of Carlo Goldoni’s new idea of theatre.

From Masks to Actors: Goldoni’s reform

Especially during the 17th century, Venice’s theatrical tradition was blooming: this was related to the economical crisis trade and markets were facing, too, which led to investments in other businesses, such as printing and theatre. By the 18th century, anyway, the quality of theatre shows was poor, since actors constantly repeated the same sketches. The Commedia dell’Arte is, indeed, chiefly based on drafts – the so-called canovacci – and ad-libbing actors.

Carlo Goldoni (Venice, 1707 – Paris, 1793), however, manages to improve this quality, by drawing real characters instead of Masks. It is to Goldoni, then, that we owe a detailed description of the life led by the Venetian middle class, especially in plays such as La locandiera. His first works, though, were still under the scope of the Commedia dell’Arte.

Servant of two Masters: Goldoni and Arlecchino’s mask

In his preface to the comedy The father of a family, Goldoni admits having introduced the character of Harlequin out of courtesy, as one of those sacrifices sometimes Authors are compelled to make. That is, Goldoni has to bend to the will of theatre managers and of the audience. Such a compromise is realised by the comedy A servant of two masters (Il servitore di due padroni), whose main character is Truffaldino (“Swindler”), one of the alternative names of Harlequin. This mask can indeed be considered as the heart-and-soul of the Commedia dell’Arte: as an anti-hero par excellence, Harlequin enjoys more freedom even than the other Masks, since he can do any roguery.

Goldoni is aware of the features of this mask, a catalyst for all the negative aspects of the Old Theatre he strives to wash away: in order to wipe out the “indecent Harlequinades”, as he calls them, he knows he must grant the Author a central role in the planning of a play, by binding characters to a wholly written text.

Goldoni is therefore a reformer of the theatre, although during his life he has to face many an foe, due to the everlasting quarrels with those who supported a traditional idea of theatre. Such a theatre, though, was doomed to vanish, just as the costume of mask-wearing: Goldoni sees it and manages to give a new life to the theatrical world, by turning it into a modern one.

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.