Venetian Masks 101 (Just in time for Libertine!)

Because Libertine is fast approaching, I thought I’d take some time and outline the various styles of masks that are traditionally worn for the Carnival of Venice.

Each style actually has a specific meaning or application. Some even have special features, fetishy and vanilla alike, such as a mask that doubles as a bit gag of sorts or a mask that can be worn while drinking or eating. Some masks were only worn by specific types of people (only by women or only by the wealthy) to reflect their identity within society. Some masks are worn by anyone, regardless of gender or class, and allow the wearer complete anonymity, whether during Carnival or at other times of the year.

Masks have been, in the past, most frequently worn from the day after Christmas (St. Stephen’s Day) through Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent). Shrove Tuesday is also known as “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras” in other places outside of Italy. Masks have also been traditionally worn in Venice during Ascension (six weeks after Easter Sunday) and between October 5 (traditionally the date of the Roman Feast of the Dead) through Christmas Day. So that means that living in Venice could mean wearing a mask for a good portion of the year! The laws in Venice have evolved over the centuries to control who wore what mask and when, to the point where masks are now only allowed during the Carnival.

Volto (Larva)

The Volto mask is one of the most common masks in the Carnival. The term “Larva” is sometimes taken to literally mean “mask” but can also mean “ghost”. The Volto is a full-face mask, including lips and nose and is primarily seen in white, although sometimes with embellishments. The most famous mask from the film Eyes Wide Shut, the one worn by Tom Cruise, is a Volto mask with gold embellishments. The Volto is also notable as a very lightweight mask, easy to maneuver around for drinking and eating, while still able to conceal the entire face. It’s commonly worn with a tricorn hat and cape.

Columbine (Columbino or Columbina)

The Columbine style is a half face, usually very embellished with feathers and gems and sometimes attached to a stick (“baton”) for the wearer to carry it in one hand and hold it up to the face. The Columbine mask can be either masculine or feminine in decoration and use; the Farfallina (“butterfly”) masks are specific to gender, with a feminine version (with a crowned top) and a masculine version (which lacks the crown). The style was derived from the Commedia Del’Arte, from the story of the romance of Harlequin and Columbine, and is sometimes attributed to a particular actress who wanted a special mask that didn’t “hide her beautiful face” as she played the part of Columbine. If a couple is looking for good coordinating costumes, the Columbine mask and the Harlequin mask (a beaked style with an exposed mouth, also referred to as Arlecchino) might be perfect! There is even a third mask that goes along with the story, the Pierrot or Pagliacchio mask (similar to the Volto but painted with a sad clown face, usually in black and white).

Bauta

The Bauta mask is a very distinctive style as well as being another very popular mask. Below the nose and cheeks, the mask juts out into a shape that somewhat resembles the front of a train, if that makes sense. There is no mouth. This is so that the wearer has access to their mouth for food and drink without removing the mask. The Bauta mask is often worn with a tricorn hat and a cape, like the Volto/Larva.

Medico Della Pesto (Plague Doctor)

This mask style takes on a much darker, creepier tone than some of the other masks. It can fairly easily be confused with the Harlequin mask, but while the Harlequin covers only half the face, the Plague Doctor mask hides the entire face from view. Additionally, the Plague Doctor mask has round eyeholes, often painted or embellished to create a sort of bespectacled effect. The original purpose of this mask was to attempt to prevent physicians from getting the plague during the 16th century, the period known as the Black Death, when the population of Europe was decimated by the bubonic plague. The beak of the mask was stuffed with herbs and aromatic oils thought to protect the body from illness. It was worn with a wide-brimmed black hat and a long black cloak, almost as a sort of primitive hazmat suit.

Moretta or Servetta Muta

The “dark” or “mute maid” mask totally obscures the features of the female-gendered person who wears it, making their face appear as a black blank slate of sorts with no mouth. The idea is that the focus is put on the female form and costume/dress rather than on the face and is intended to be worn only by females of the aristocracy, with the idea that they should be “seen and not heard”. The Moretta mask is held in place by a button placed between the front teeth, rendering the wearer unable to speak without removing the mask. This mask has not been widely worn since the late 1700s, but may be perfect for someone as a sort of mask-as-gag item or for someone who would like to engage in some fun gender-bending. Another great mask for gender-bending would be the Gnaga mask, originally intended to be worn by men of the aristocracy to dress as women.

Other styles
The following styles are also used during the Carnival of Venice but are less common.
• Pulcinella (Punch or Punchinello)
• Comedy and Tragedy (Tragicomica, great selection for couples, or for one person if they wear the “singolo” style)
• Trifaccia (“three faces”; Tragedy, Comedy, and the lower half of the wearer’s own face in one mask)
• Zanni (servants)
• Capitano
• Pantalone
• Arlecchino Tradizionale (an alternate Harlequin character’s mask)
• Other masks inspired by characters in the Commedia Del’Arts
• Sun and Moon masks (another great suggestion for couples but also available as single masks with both elements combined)
• Phantom mask, taken from Venetian masks but more informed by The Phantom of the Opera than traditional Italian masks.

PASSIONAL’s staff can help you pick out just the right mask to go with your Libertine costume, and can special order one in just for you!

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