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Traditional Venetian Masks
A Thursday paper was folded on a Barbie doll-sized dinette table, alongside an open box of holiday decorations with an elegant feathered and sequined half-mask perched on top.
-from True Colors by Thea Harrison
You can’t have a carnival without masks and today, just as in the heyday of the Venetian Carnevale in the eighteenth century, creating masks is the most profitable business in Venice. Yet the half-masks with glitter and feathers, or masks that imitate animal forms, are not the traditional Venetian masks that were worn during the original Carnevale. These were relatively plain masks whose forms frequently referenced death or mockery.
The first types of masks that appeared during Carnevale were called medico della peste, masks with long noses that were usually white. These were used all over Europe to protect people from the plague, and typically denoted plague doctors. The noses would be stuffed with herbs that were supposed to filter out the miasmas believed to cause the plague. Perhaps because of Carnevale’s associations with death, or perhaps because the plague struck Venice during a Carnevale, this became a popular mask for revelers. The bauta is a variation on the medico della peste which became the recognizable mask of Venice. It has a square shape, long nose, and no mouth. It’s usually paired with a cape and tricorn and is very effective at hiding the identity of its wearer.
Both men and women wore bautas, but if you were a woman looking for a little–ahem–adventure, you’d wear the moretta, a black oval mask with no mouth. Unlike the bauta, the moretta masks makes it very difficult for the wearer to speak, and impossible to eat or drink. This wasn’t a mask you’d wear for long stretches of time or for going casually about the city; it was for quick assignations at the casino or a ball.
Traditional Venetian masks, then and now, are made by painstakingly layering strips of paper into a mould with glue (called papier-mâché, although this isn’t the papier-mâché you’re probably familiar with from childhood craft projects). Some masks were also moulded out of leather, although these were less common. Mask makers following the tradition craft of Venetian masks still thrive in Venice and show off their artistry in exhibitions and festivals around the world.
Tomorrow we’ll discuss the characters of the commedia dell’arte, but today let us know which of the traditional Venetian masks you’d wear–the bauta, the medico de peste, or the moretta?
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