A Short History of Venice Carnival & Some of Its Popular Masks
28 February 2023
By Sarah Angela Almaden
Unsplash: Micky White
Even though it’s still winter in Venice, February in Italy's floating city is still warmer than January. Maybe it’s because romance is in the air around this time of the year. Or maybe it’s because the grandeur of Carnevale is just right around the corner. Whatever the reason is, Febbraio (February) in Venice is as extremely vibrant and extravagant as you would imagine thanks to the Venetian Carnival.
Unsplash: Edoardo Maresca
When is the Carnival of Venice (Carnevale di Venezia)?
The Carnevale is an annual festival in Venice that is celebrated in February and it ends on Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday, right before Lent begins.
- February 11 – February 21, 2023
- February 3 – February 13, 2024
- February 22 – March 4, 2025
Even though the Venice Carnival has been celebrated for centuries, its beginnings are a little hazy. Legend has it that the first one took place in 1162 after the Venetian Republic defeated Ulrico de Treven, the patriarch of Aquileia. As a result, people began to gather in Piazza San Marco to celebrate the victory. The festival then experienced a great increase in popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries since it encouraged debauchery and very wild parties. Unfortunately, after being taken over by Napoleon Bonaparte, Venice lost its independence and fell under the control of Emperor Francis II of the Austrian Empire. With the shift of power, the Venetian Carnival and the wearing of masks were completely outlawed, and all of these restrictions lasted for about 200 years. It was around the 19th century that the Carnival made a brief comeback, where it essentially evolved into a venue for creative expression. Then in 1979, the Italian government decided to revive the Carnival to promote the local Venetian culture. Thereafter, the streets of Venice quickly filled up with masqueraders donning the most lavish attire and elaborate masks, reawakening the spirit of the legendary Venice Carnival.
The Venetian Carnival masks allowed revelers the opportunity to indulge in excessive pleasure, gambling, political killings, and other acts because the masks they wore provided them with anonymity.
- Bauta: a white, simple, square-jawed mask that covers the full face and is sometimes worn with a red or black cape (tricorn hat) to further hide the person’s identity
- Volto / Larva: an iteration of a Bauta mask; it is also referred to as a "citizen's mask" and is constructed of thick plastic, white porcelain, or leather
- Colombina / Arlecchina: an elaborately decorated mask that covers half of the face and is secured with a ribbon or a rod
- Medico Della Peste / The Plague Doctor: a costume with an overcoat that is ankle length and features a large beak mask; this Venetian mask wasn't initially intended to be a costume for a carnival, but rather as a means of preventing the spread of disease during the plague
- Servetta muta / Moretta: a black, oval-shaped mask with big eye holes but no lips for women; the person wearing the mask must bite down on one of the buttons to keep it in place
- Pantalone: the Pantalone is a half-mask and its full name is Pantalone de Bisognosi; the costume is depicted as an old man with high brows, slanted eyes, and a huge nose that resembles a crow's beak
- Arlecchino: also known as the harlequin; it consists of a costume with a short-nosed half-mask, arched eyebrows, and a rag-filled outfit
- Zanni: a long, curved, leather half-mask with prominent brows and a forward-curving nose (the longer the nose, the dumber the character is)