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.
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.