History of Venetian Masks

History of Venetian Masks. The Mask is an iconic object, because it projects the Venetian’s spirit towards celebration, amusement and transgression.

  • Intro – History – Masks in Everyday Life – Anti-Mask Laws – How the finest Venetian masks are made
  • Classification: 1. Commedia dell’Arte Venetian Masks – 2. Venetian Carnival Masks



History of Venetian Masks: INTRO


History of Venetian Masks


Masks have always been an essential component of the Venetian Carnival, started as a time for celebration, where all social classes would mingle. Wearing a mask offered a possibility to remain anonymous, enjoying the advantages that such condition brought with it.

Wearing a mask allowed a person to hide any form of identification based on origin, age, gender or religion; in a society where social classes were very well defined and not intended to interact with each other.

Below: Arlecchino (Harlequin) and Colombina  and Pierrot


While wearing a mask was a status symbol in the Venice of the 17th C, its use was subject to strict rules. It was for example, forbidden to wear masks outside the carnival time and certain other well-defined specific times; or in sacred places, such as churches.  A man could not dress himself as a woman and prostitutes were not allowed to wear masks in public.

The Venice Carnival, (Carnevale di Venezia) dating back to the 15th C, is still famous today.    Around 3 million tourists from all around the world, are attracted to and share in the excitement, pageantry and colour of this ancient tradition.

Venetian masks are a centuries-old tradition of Venice, Italy. The masks are typically worn during the Carnival (Carnival of Venice), but have been used on many other occasions in the past, usually as a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status. The mask would permit the wearer to act more freely in cases where he or she wanted to interact with other members of the society outside the bounds of identity and everyday convention. It was useful for a variety of purposes, some of them illicit or criminal, others just personal, such as romantic encounters.

The Venice Carnival, (Carnevale di Venezia) dating back to the 15th C, is still famous today.    Around 3 million tourists from all around the world, are attracted to and share in the excitement, pageantry and colour of this ancient tradition.

Venetian masks are characterised by their ornate design, featuring bright colours such as gold or silver and the use of complex decorations in the baroque style.  Many designs of Venetian masks stem from Commedia dell’Arte.  They can range from being be full-face mask, eyes and nose, to just eye masks.

Venetian Masks: HISTORY


The wearing of masks in theatres dates back as far as the ancient Greek festivals in honour of Dionysius, god of theatre.  When the Romans conquered Southern Europe, they adapted the Grecian love of theatre and the use of masks in plays and celebrations.

In 1436, the masters of the Guild of Decorators in Venice re-organised the mask making industry.  It proposed a number of rules that were ratified by the Giustizieri Vecchi; the magistrates responsible at the time, for vigilance of the arts and crafts.  This was when the Venetian profession of “maschereri” or “mascareri” (mask makers), was officially recognised with its own guild and statutes.


Growing demand was attracting additional artisans to this profession and therefore more regulations were required   A document now held by the Correr Civic Museum in Venice, indicates that between the years of 1530 and 1600; eleven craftsmen were registered as mask-makers, including a woman named Barbara Scharpetta.  They were joined by “targheri” – craftsmen who specialised in decorative finishing and the creation of new “faces”.

Made for centuries in Venice, these distinctive masks were traditionally formed from paper-mache and often extravagantly decorated with fur, fabric, gems, or feathers.  Eventually, Venetian masks re-emerged as the emblem of Carnevale, a pageant and street fair celebrating hedonism.



Venetian Masks: Masks in Everyday Life

The Venice Carnival traditionally began on the 26th December and ended on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday; so lasting more than two months.  It was the most sumptuous and extravagant carnival in the world, but the incredible thing is that it made up only a part of the period in which mask wearing was permitted.

The first law regulating the use of masks dates back to the 13th C, but nobody knows when the Venetians actually started wearing them as a part of everyday life.  What is definite however, is that this all ended with the fall of the Venetian Republic at the end of the 18th C.

Before that, the law allowed for masks to be worn for most of the year.  For example, in the 18th C  from the 5th October to the 10th June; apart from the 10 days during Advent and the 40 days of Lent.

This behaviour does seem excessive at first, but how can it be explained?

Venice was an aristocratic republic with its unique style of democracy effective only within the upper classes; while the ordinary people had no say in government.  Therefore, with the wealth, power and consensus they enjoyed; the aristocracy could impose its own lifestyle, as a model for the whole of Venetian society.

Venetian nobles were merchants and adventurers, who risked their riches and sometimes their own lives on the ships, which worked the Eastern trade routes.  They therefore created a city, which offered a strong sense of adventure.

The masks represented absence of rules and freedom of action.  You could do anything you liked with the anonymity of a mask and adventure was possible in Venice itself time, the Carnival broke the traditional boundaries and masks entered the realm of everyday life.

After the fall of the Venetian Republic, mask making went into a period of recession, but has enjoyed a renaissance since the late 1970’s.  Today when visiting Venice, there are mask vendors on everywhere, purchased by visitors from all around the world.

The redevelopment of the mask business, began as a pursuit by some Venetian college students for the tourist trade.   The true and rather expensive masks, made by specialist Venetian artisans must be differentiated from the mass produced and imported cheap versions.

Venetian Masks: Anti-Mask Laws

(Note: these came under the term “Sumptuary Laws”; rules made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance.  These laws were designed to regulate habits, especially on moral or religious grounds.  They were particularly directed against inordinate expenditures on extravagance and luxury).

The main feature of the Venice Carnival has always been the stunning masquerade of costumes and masks.

Masks used to have symbolic and functional features.  During the Venice Carnivals in the past, the streets of Venice were full of the people wearing masks and costumes; which allowed them to protect their identity and remove any social and class differences between wearers.

Unfortunately, the ability to completely hide one’s identity; increasingly became the perfect place for theft and abuse of various kinds.

Masks allowed a wearer hide their identity during licentious and dissolute activities; such as indulging in prostitution, homosexuality, gambling, drugs and drinking and not caring if others disapproved of such decadent behaviour.

The earliest documented mention of people wearing masks dates back to 1268, when masked people were banned from playing various games by law.  The lack of any other documented sources about masking suggests that people did not wear them frequently before the 13th C.

The Great Council prohibited the throwing of scented eggs (ovi odoriferi), blown and filled with rose water; towards ladies strolling or on balconies.

“Mattaccino” masks, worn by young nobles dressed as clowns; became the first to be regulated by law.  This pastime become so popular that the government made a decision to install nets, to protect those ladies from the soiling of their expensive garments.

Since 1339 various bans were decreed on Venice Carnival masks and costumes against criminal and abusive behaviour.

One such abuse, was the opportunity to wear women’s clothes or religious costumes to break into churches, monasteries or convents and commit indecent acts and other liberties.

Painting of faces and wearing false beards and wigs was disallowed, in order to protect people from robbers and murderers who regularly wore them.  Masks and costumes were banned at night and also the carrying of offensive weapons, hidden under garments.

In the 18th century during carnival, it was forbidden to travel to the casinos with masks and carnival costumes; due to the numerous incidents in which unknown gamblers were able to escape their creditors.

With the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, a permanent ban of Venice Carnival costumes arrived, with the exception of private parties in Venetian palaces and the “Ballo della Cavalchina” at the La Fenice theatre.

The fall of the Republic in 1789 at the hands of Napoleon, marked the end of the long independence of Venice and the abolition of the many traditions of the Venetian Carnival for about two centuries.

Venetian Masks: How the finest Venetian masks are made

The modern celebration of Venetian Carnival was officially reintroduced in 1979 and has reinvigorated the art and craft of making Venetian masks.  Wearing Venetian masks has spread to Halloween masquerade balls and what North and South Americans call Mardi Gras, but they always carry their rich Italian history.

Today, Venetian artisans still make their masks completely by hand, from beginning to end of the process.  The finest masks are made by the paper-mache process, as they are light, comfortable to wear and do not suffer from excess humidity.

Obviously, the time and care taken over their production is reflected in the considerable price of such artistic creations, which are far removed from the usual touristic and imported offerings.

Firstly, a clay mold is created; which then is coated in liquid plaster.  When this plaster layer is completely hardened, it is removed from the mold.

After coating the mold with a thin layer of Vaseline; layers of wet paper and glue are applied.  Great care is taken to avoid wrinkling or creasing, as the layers are built up.

After placing on a heat source until dry, the mask can be carefully removed.  Next, several coats of white tempera (plaster/gusso) are applied and the eye holes can be cut out.

Finally, the mask is ready to be decorated using plain or bright colours, gold and silver leaf, feathers, fabrics, Swarovski crystals and leather.

Less costly alternatives are paper-mache paste, mixed with plaster (tempura).  Modern styles can also be made of metal filigree in gold and other shades.  Masks made specifically for holding, can also be made of ceramic.



Venetian masks may be generally classified under two major groups: 1. Commedia dell’Arte Masks and 2. Carnival Masks

1. Commedia dell’Arte Venetian Masks

Commedia dell’Arte (“comedy of artists”), is a form of improvisational theatre that began in Italy in the 16th C and held its popularity through the 18th C.

These comedy characters, included the forebears of the modern clown; namely the Harlequin (Arlecchino) and Zanni.

Commedia dell’Arte has four stock character groups:

  1. The servants or “zanni”, these are all masked characters such as Arlecchino, Brighella, Pulcinella and Pedrolino.
  2. The old men or “vecchi”, also masked characters such as Pantalone and il Dottore;
  3. The lovers or “innamorati” who would have names such as Flavio and Isabella
  4. The captains or “capitani”, who can also be La Signora if a female.

The characters are exaggerated “real characters” and display specific moods and in some instances acrobatic ability.

In ancient times, performances were unscripted and held outside using few props.  They were free to watch and funded by donations.  A performing troupe normally consisted of ten people, including eight men and two women.

Conventional plot lines were written on themes of adultery, jealousy, old age and love.   Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence; some of which themselves were translations of lost Greek comedies of the 4th C B.C.

Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock physical gags, known as “lazzi” and “concetti“, as well as on the spot improvised episodes and routines.  Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirise local scandals, current events or regional tastes; while still using old jokes and punch lines.

Characters were identified by costumes, masks and even props, such as a type of baton known as a “slapstick” (hence the modern term “slapstick comedy”).

Male Commedia dell’Arte characters were depicted by actors wearing masks representing regions or towns.  The female characters however, were usually not masked.  In fact, the roles were often played by males in women’s clothing and wigs – in “travesty”, as it is termed.

Thus, the Commedia dell’Arte, with its stock situations, characters and improvised dialogue, has influenced many other forms of drama – from pantomime and Punch and Judy, featuring debased forms of the original characters; to the modern animated cartoon, situation comedy and even professional wrestling.


ARLECCHINO (Harlequin), is a most popular of Zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte.  Arlecchino traditionally wore an outfit of patches and rags, which evolved into the multi-coloured diamond pastern of red, green and blue, seen today.  The primary aspect was his acrobatic agility and his character was generally depicted as quite stupid and greedy (in the food sense).  He often showed a love interest in the servant girl Columbina; his lust for her only superseded by his desire for food or fear of his master.



BRIGHELLA is a comic masked character of a money-grabbing villain and a partner of Arlecchino.  He is loosely categorised as either a servant characters or was portrayed as a member of the middle class. He is an inveterate schemer and often most cruel to those beneath him on the social ladder.  Brighella’s plans were frequently foiled by his own ineptitude.

His costume consisted of loosely fitting, white smock and pants with green trim and often carried a battachio or slapstick.



BURRATINO is a minor character who appears in a variety of roles including a house servant, an innkeeper, a gardener, a peasant, a beggar, and a long-lost father.  He is of extremely good-nature, quick witted and trustworthy.

Though only mildly popular on the stage, Burrattino found his real fame in the marionette theatre.  The puppet’s influence in Italy was so great that by the end of the 16th C, all marionettes operated by strings and a wire were called burattini (previously bagatelli or fantoccini).



CAPITAN SCARAMOUCHE was a roguish adventurer and swordsman with a vainglorious, boastful, but cowardly personality.  Always a favourite character, his mask covered only half his face and was dressed in a cape, feathered hat, high boots and with sword in belt.




COLOMBINA (“little dove” in Italian) is a comic maidservant character and the lover of Arlecchino.  She was usually dressed in a ragged and patched dress appropriate to a hired servant and similar to her counterpart Arlecchino.  Colombina

was also known to wear heavy makeup around her eyes and carry a tambourine which she could use to fend off the amorous advances of Pantalone.  She was often the only functional intellect on the stage.

The half-mask, is usually adorned in a variety of jewels, feathers and fabrics and is often painted in silver or gold and held in place by a ribbon or stick.


ILL DOTTORE is a local aristocrat and/or doctor of medicine or law, or anything else he claims to know about.  His interaction in the play is usually mostly with Pantalone, either as a friend, mentor or competitor.  An extremely pompous character, he loves the sound of his own voice.

Typically depicted as an elderly man, he makes many cruel jokes about the opposite sex and believes that he knows everything about everything.  He is an obese man that enjoys eating and drinking to excess.

This mask is unique, in that it is the only one in Commedia dell’Arte, to cover only the forehead and nose.  Ill Dottore’s costume is usually black, sometimes with a white collar and he frequently wears a hat and long trailing robes.


PANTALONE is one of the most important principal characters found in Commedia dell’Arte.  What with his exceptional greed and status at the top of the social order; Pantalone is the metaphorical representation of “money” in the commedia world.

Depicted as an aged character, he is miserly, somewhat stupid, fond of food and of pretty women, talkative, gullible, full of temper and the butt of all the jokes some of them very indecent.  He traditionally wears a large codpiece to advertise his virility, which everyone around him knows to be long gone.

He is often cast as the father of one of the inamorata (lovers) and has some business or personal relationship with Dottore or Capitano.  Pantalone’s plans to profit at the expense of his family and friends, are guaranteed to be thwarted by his servant.  Wearing a half-mask with a long and hooked nose, he is dressed in a tight red vest, red breeches and stockings, a black cassock, slippers and a brimless hat.


PIERROT (Little Peteror Pedrolino, in his Italian incarnation, is a stock figure in the Commedia dell’Arte.

He is a naive and trusting character, unaware of the world around him and a fool; always being cheated and joked on by others.  Pierrot pines for love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin.

Performing unmasked, with a whitened face, he wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white pantaloons.

He wears a hat that is either tall and pointed, or else small and brimmed, or a skull-cap.  Pierrot is very occasionally depicted with a teardrop on his face and he usually wears no mask; the actor is generally expected to have a great range of facial expression.


PULCINELLA is a classical character that originated in the Commedia dell’Arte of the 17th C, a hunchback who still chases women.  Pulcinella became a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry and was the model for Punch in the English variation of Punch and Judy.

His main characteristic, from which he acquired his name, is his extremely long nose, which resembles a beak. “Pulcinella”, is derived from the Italian word pulcino or chick.

His traditional temperament is to be mean, vicious, and crafty.  Pulcinella’s main mode of defence, is to pretend to be too stupid to know what’s going on and his secondary mode is to physically aggressive.

Pulcinella often wears a black mask and long white coat and has loose and straggly hair.


ZANNI is the archetype of the comic servant characters of the Commedia dell’Arte.  The name is derived  from Giovanni (also Zan, Zane, Zuane), a typical name of servants whose forefathers emigrated in Venice search for work from the valleys around Bergamo.  The English word “zany”, derives from this character.

Opposed to the Magnifici (the masters), the evolution of the character Zanni was of two distinct types, one was of the silly, simple minded and vulgar servant and the other of the sly, cunning, meddling, and cheeky servant.  Frequently, he remains poor and constantly hungry.  In Commedia, Zanni has a variety of at least six different types of walks.

Zanni’s costume was loosely fitting white smock and pants. He wore a black half-mask.

2. Venetian Carnival Masks

“The Mask is an iconic object, because it projects the Venetian’s spirit towards celebration, amusement and transgression”


BAUTA is famous through the Carnival of Venice, as it is the main type of mask worn during the Carnival.  Its advantage was the wearer had access to their mouth.

The Bauta was used also on many other occasions as a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status.  It would permit the wearer to act more freely in cases where he or she wanted to interact with other members of the society outside the bounds of identity and everyday convention.  It was thus useful for a variety of purposes, some of them illicit or criminal, others just personal, such as romantic encounters.

The origin of the name Bauta is uncertain; It may came from the German “behten” (to protect), as well as from “bau” or “babau“, typical Italian representation of the monster, or bad beast; used by adults to scare children.

The Bauta is quite ghost-like and with the centuries the fashion was to wear it with a black tricorno (the 3-pointed typical Venetian hat), zendale (long hood made of satin and macrame), and a long cape.

DAMA, which presents many elegant variations corresponds to the ladies of the Cinquecento (the period of Titian); who covered themselves in jewels, expensive clothing and elaborate coiffure.  Today, this is considered to be the most popular and most beautiful mask type used during the Venetian Carnival.



GATTO (Cat in Italian) is a traditional Venetian Carnival mask.  Cats were so scarce in Venice during the days of the Republic, that they became the subject of one of the most typical masks.




JESTER, or JOLLY as a female variant, is a specific type of clown mostly associated with the Middle Ages.  Starting in Italy, Jester moved into all of Europe, influencing theatre in Spain, Holland, Germany, Austria, England and especially France.

The origins of the Jester are said to have been in prehistoric Western tribal society. Pliny the Elder mentions a royal Jester (planus regius) when recounting Apelles’ visit to the palace of the Hellenistic King Ptolemy I.  However, Jesters are mainly thought of in association with the European Middle Ages.  Jester was symbolic twin of the king.  All Jesters and fools in those days were thought of as special cases, whom God had touched with a childlike madness; a gift or perhaps a curse.  Mentally handicapped people sometimes found employment by capering and behaving in an amusing way.  In the harsh world of medieval Europe, people who might not be able to survive any other way thus found a social niche.

Jesters typically wore brightly coloured clothing in a motley pattern.  Their hats were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points, each of which had a jingle bell at the end.  The three points of the hat represent the asses’ ears and tail worn by Jesters in earlier times.  Other things distinctive about the jester were his incessant laughter and his mock sceptre, known as a bauble or marotte.


MORETTA is traditional Venetian mask.  This mask was worn by Venetian women all year around.  Moretta is an oval mask of black velvet that was usually worn by women visiting convents.  It was invented in France and rapidly became popular in Venice, as it brought out the beauty of feminine features.  The mask was finished off with a veil.



VOLTO (meaning ghost and face in Italian) is a full-face mask, also known as the “citizen” mask; because it was worn by the common people, during all holidays since ancient times.  Being more three-dimensional, it was comfortable to wear and was usually worn with a three-cornered hat and cloak; so as to increase the aura of mystery.



DOTTORE PESTE is a modern Venetian Carnival mask and has a very unique history. One of the worst scourges for the city of Venice was without doubt the Plague, which struck the city on several occasions.

Some plague doctors wore a special costume. The garments were invented by Charles de L’Orme in 1630 and were first used in Naples, but later spread to be used throughout Europe.  The protective suit consisted of a light, waxed fabric overcoat, a mask with glass eye openings and a beak shaped nose, typically stuffed with herbs, straw, and spices.  Plague doctors would also commonly carry a cane to examine and direct patients, without the need to make direct contact with the patient.  One of their duties was to collect statistics.

The scented materials included juniper berry, ambergris, roses, mint  leaves, camphor, cloves, laudanum, myrrh, and storax.  Due to the primitive understanding of disease at the time, it was believed this suit would sufficiently protect the doctor from miasma (“bad air”, which was thought to be the cause of the plague); while tending to patients.


LINKS (internal-external)

See my other related posts in the category of Venice Carnival 

Also for all the main Venetian Festivals-Regattas-Events   

Original Venice: Authentic and original Venetian Masks for sale




History of Venetian Masks     History of Venetian Masks      History of Venetian Masks     History of Venetian Masks

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