History of Venetian Mask

A mélange of truth and lies, of sincerity and delusion, its origins practically untraceable, the mask’s prerogatives were, at first, exclusively ritual; over the centuries it maintained the concept of transgression which is the basis for every form of masquerade. As queen of the carnival, which knows no distinction between actors and spectators, the mask sets off the evanescent flight from daily routine and gives vent to the most repressed instincts, concurrently bringing to the fore human attributes usually denied by social life, revealing at times a few hidden truths. It is not by chance the acute dandy, protagonist of mundane English salons, in one of his famous aphorisms asserted, as was his wont, that “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

As Bakhtin justly observes, together with mask-wearing, disguise – a requisite in public feasts – was a means to celebrate the people’s need to renew its own social image: the Carnival, in opposition to official feasts, was a sort of temporary liberation which triumphed over the prevailing truth and the existing regime, and where all kinds of hierarchical relationships, privileges, rules and taboos were momentarily abolished. It led to the illusion, impossible in normal times, that every form of social discrepancy could be dismissed, and created freer, more informal contacts, where permissive language and conduct played an important role in the general mirth and collective transgression.

More than any other city, Venice was famous for its carnivals, its eccentric masquerades, its more or less candid love affairs and honest schemes linked to mask-wearing, as testified by its prolific literature. The near physical relationships, which occurred daily amongst the city’s inhabitants between calli and callette, corti and campielli, and the extensive promiscuity which denied any kind of privacy, stem perhaps from an ancestral urge to return to anonymity, for which the mask is an ideal accomplice.

The Carnival was at home in Venice and even more so, the mask; it would not let itself be easily constrained by the calendar’s tight time limits, so much that bewildered and “enlightened” travellers had the impression of a never-ending carnival. Be it in hazardous times of major tension, or when the plague was inexorably taking its toll, the carnival machine never stopped and, once the decline of the glorious Serenissima seemed inevitable, the carnival gave vent to an outburst of collective gaiety in an urge to exorcize evil; the mask then recovered its apotropaic origins just as the witch dons it to ward off the effects of an evil spell.

Andrea Zanzotto, in one of his piercing comments, asserts that the Venetian carnival virtually constitutes “the idea of utopia’s benign prevalence over reality”, an ailing reality, that of the eighteenth century city “drifting towards death ’twixt songs and revelry” instead of rousing itself back to life – a city coming to terms with history. Its rulers “knew that renewal was necessary, but had the intuition that purely historical changes could not save them: the aspiration towards a non historical renewal was manifest in that the carnival was prolonged over practically the entire year – the true mask of the utopian projection beyond any sort of historical renewal.

In this manner, the curtain is dropped over the annals of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, which, even in its own death, knows how to depart with the same elegance that characterized its millenary existence; but perhaps the Carnival of Venice is a new phoenix, ready to resurge from its own ashes to now celebrate, in a blithe danse macabre, with a smirk and a magic chant, an era which has completed its cycle and sees nothing but the darkness of its own future.

Excerpts from Danilo Reato: "Le maschere veneziane", Arsenale Editrice