Masks have been a topic of intrigue for centuries. While they are used in many cultures, no type of masks conjure mystery and intrigue quite like Venetian masquerade masks.
The origins of the Venetian mask are hazy.
There are no historical references indicating their original usage, and the first reference to masking dates to 1268, when it was outlawed to perform certain activities while masked.
Over the years, masks have been associated with masquerade balls in Venice, as well as being a staple accessory to the annual Venetian carnival.
However, they were originally worn on a regular basis rather than solely on special occasions. Venetian citizens could wear masks for over nine months of the year. Theories abound as to why this came about, with scholars citing the use of masks as a tool to escape rigid social and class hierarchies in Venice, or to maintain anonymity so Venetians could indulge in a decadent lifestyle without being concerned with repercussions from the Church.
The use of masks became incredibly limited in the 18th century due to laws prohibiting them from being worn except on special occasions and events.
Many people rebelled against these laws, and masks took on a whole new meaning; they moved from being clever disguises, to objects that took after the root of their name masca, a word that literally translated means ‘soot’, but that can also describe dark beings of the underworld. This meaning has been carried forth to this day, with people often associating masks with mystery, intrigue, and often a dark, rebellious attitude.
Masks were not only used as social statements or in festivities—they were also used in Venetian theater, with specific styles of masks being worn exclusively by certain characters.
Over the years the distinction between theater masks and their decorative counterparts has been blurred, with masks such as the Arlecchino, Medico della Peste, Pantalone, and Zanni being common masks to wear to masquerade occasions.
Mask-makers, or mascherari, were born out of the demand for masks, and they were often artists who paid very close attention to detail, thus helping cement a long tradition of impeccable craftsmanship in Venetian masks.
The annual Venetian carnival is still held to this day, and people visit Venice from across the globe to witness a parade of beautiful costumes and even more beautiful handcrafted Venetian masks.