The Secrets Behind The Venetian Mask In Venice
After completing our tour of a Murano glass factory in Venice, Bob and I were anxious to get back to the Grand Canal. In no time, a water taxi whisked us across the water. Santa Maria della Salute rose high on the horizon where it stands at the junction of the Grand and Giudecca Canals.
We had a closer look at Santa Maria della Salute as we made our way along Grand Canal on foot. Construction of this basilica started in 1630 and was completed in 1681.
It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, thought to be the protector of the republic, in response to the Black Plague that killed around 140,000 people in Venice, close to a third of the population.
Built on 1,000,000 wooden piles, Santa Maria della Salute is impressive with two domes and two bell towers.
Masterful carved statues including the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, decorate the main facade.
After lunch and a quick change of clothes, Bob and I set off to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets. Much activity and a press of people filled the main squares and plazas, so Bob and I were keen to explore some quieter calli.
The streets of Venice defy orthodox navigation spiraling as they do to intersect one another or ending in abrupt dead ends. That’s half the fun.
At one time, the narrow paths were primarily for service purposes or illicit business. Now they wind between withering walls of buildings where evidence of every day life can be seen around each corner.
These quiet lanes are home to many local Venetians. Though humble in appearance, the weather-worn buildings represent the heart and soul of Venice.
Some streets are so narrow that only two people can pass. In fact, the narrowest calle in Venice is only 53 centimetres wide!
Bob and I reveled in our exploration. Character spilled from every structure in the back alleyways.
Every so often, Bob and I took note of a rustic door that had us wondering what lay beyond. Was it a gateway to a treasured art collection? In this case, it is one of the earliest surviving public libraries and a repository for one of the world’s most significant collections of classical texts, the Marciana Library.
Did this door lead to a canal like so many do?
Or was it the entrance to a secret courtyard?
As Bob and I emerged into the bright sunlight at the end of one dark laneway, we found ourselves in an open piazza. Intriguing shops piqued our curiosity.
Entering one shop selling the famous Venetian masks, we found therein a very personable couple and their wee son. For 5 euros, I was allowed to don a mask and basic costume.
Although I had no knowledge about the history of masks made by mascherari, artisans skilled in the craft of mask making, I was eager to learn and thrilled to play the part of a Venetian dressed for adventure and intrigue.
The mask offered for my costume was a type called the volto larva, meaning face and ghost respectively. This type of full face mask is the iconic modern Venetian mask. It is often stark white and made of fine wax cloth. This type of mask does not allow the wearer to eat or drink.
A volto mask is often gilded and decorated, but the mask hiding my identity was elaborate with a periphery of vibrant green feathers to further confuse any onlooker. To complete a masquerade, a simple costume that disguised one’s gender was often worn by Carnival goers. I could play at participating in the Carnevale di Venezia.
Everywhere that Bob and I meandered, shops were brimming with the most exquisite handmade examples of face masks. Some carried very steep price tags.
Given the history of Venetian masks and their significance in Venetian culture, it is no wonder that these shops pander to the whims of tourists and residents alike. And yet, for a period in history after Napoleon’s army put an end to the Venetian Republic in 1797, Venetian masks were outlawed and frowned upon.
As Bob and I passed another shop window, we noticed a gentleman fashioning face masks on site. We engaged him in conversation. It was interesting to learn about the history of Venetian face masks while watching him fashion a Columbina mask.
The first time masked faces were seen dancing in Piazza di San Marco was in 1162. Masks were simple in design and decoration. Columbina masks are named after a character in the commedia dell’arte, an early form of theatre.
By the 13th Century, the wearing of masks was a tradition that lingered from Christmas Day until the start of Lent. Celebrations were unfettered because of the anonymity provided by the face coverings.
By 1436, the wearing of masks and costumes was well established. By then, masquerading also became a tradition from October to Christmas. The popularity led to the mascherari being recognized as true artisans. They were given their own guild and had their own laws.
Handmade masks usually were fashioned in leather or the original papier-mâché method. Here, glue is applied in a decorative design ready to receive glitter.
The practice of going in disguise peaked in the 18th Century. Carnival provided the opportunity for all social classes to mingle without fear of retribution or recognition. This was a real benefit in a city with such narrow passages and close-quartered buildings where anonymity and privacy were difficult.
This Bauta mask, now coated with glitter, is considered a practical mask because a masquerader can eat or drink whilst wearing it.
After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, it was almost 200 years before Venetian masks became popular again. A group of former Academy of Fine Arts students opened Venice’s first modern mask shop in 1978.
As Bob and I strolled our way back toward Grand Canal, we were absolutely dazzled by the displays in all the shops.
Judging by the extensive variety of masks, we could only conclude that Carnevale di Venezia would be a spectacle of gargantuan proportions.
Masqueraders fancied up in 17th-century Venetian dresses or suits to complement their chosen masks, or more macabre outfits reminiscent of plague doctors, led to the Carnival being the most famous around the world.
Bob and I encountered more than a couple of buskers around Venice. They don colourful costumes in the hopes that tourists will pay for a photo op. Compared to more refined ensembles worn by participants in Carnival, these appear quite gaudy, but they sure caught our eye.
There was always someone vying for our attention as we strolled the promenades and main squares. Bob and I were glad that we had escaped the throngs of hawkers and day trippers for the quiet of the backstreets if only for a couple of hours.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean