The Masks We Wear

February 10, 2015 / Events
Venice, Veneto
veniceThe first mention of carnevale in a Venetian document goes back to 1094 A.D., so the Venetians have certainly had some time to turn masks and costumes into an art form.

Carnival in most places is mainly celebrated for a few days, at most maybe for the whole week leading up to Ash Wednesday. The 13th-16th century Venetians however seemed to like the idea so much that they decided to dress up and wear masks as of the first possible day allowed by the liturgical calendar, December 26th. And for quite some time even that wasn’t enough, so festivities began in October!

veneziacarnevale2Drawing from the various characters of the Commedia dell’Arte such as the Lover, the Clown, the Captain, the Doctor, Columbine, Scaramouche, etc., Venetians annually re-interpret the costumes and masks in the most creative and ornate ways. (What with the quantities of precious fabrics, silks and brocades used in each costume, read… expensive!)

Perhaps the need for anonymity, both of identity and social status, arose in order to occasionally push or even step outside the very strict bounds of the politically imposed acceptable behavior in Renaissance Venice… the reasons might be lost in time but one look at the costumes and masks and it is obvious that the gaiety and desire to celebrate have remained undiluted to this day.

How undiluted? A friend just went up to Venice for a festa di carnevale thrown by an old Venetian family. This was not a more traditional festa in maschera (masked party), but was instead a festa d’epoca a period piece; in this case Venice, 1580. The costumes for the guests were all provided by the host, and were of course perfect replicas (meaning materials too) of late 16th century clothing. (My friend was “Duke Gonzaga, Mantova”.) To ensure that everyone looked their best, each guest was contacted about a month ago for their exact measurements, and all the outfits were fit to measure by what must have been a squadron of tailors. (Keep in mind these are not simple clothes, but about as frilly, pleated, and multi-layered as you can possibly get.) The party took place over the course of two days, first in the oratorio of church for a live Renaissance music performance and rinfresco, followed the next evening and night by a grand affair in the family Renaissance palazzo, consisting of aperitivo, dinner, and of course dancing. Changing out of costume during downtime was discouraged (and in any case, complicated). Indeed, over the two days the guests walked in their outfits along Venice’s calle to and from the events.

And apparently it was one of the smaller events in town.





by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

12 Responses to “The Masks We Wear”

  1. Gian Banchero

    Who hasn’t thought of attending a period event as such? I wonder which foods were served? Thanks Penny for bringing to light such an event.

  2. Doris Lentz

    Thank you for the history lesson! Our Son’s of Italy Lodge in Dayton, Ohio is hosting a Carnavale dinner, cooked and served by the men of the Lodge, on Monday, February 16. It promises to be a great evening! Ciao, Doris Lentz

    • Andrew DiLiddo

      Doris: Is your Lodge hosting the State Convention this year? Andrew, Lodge 685 Akron

      • Doris Lentz

        Yes, Andrew, we are. My Husband, Dan, and I just finished our second 2 yr. term on Council at John Pirelli Lodge # 1633 last night. We hope to be elected next month as delegates to the to the State Convention. If we are there will look you up! Grazie e ciao, Doris

  3. Wonderful article ..recalling as a GI on TDY in Vincenza , some went to Carnevale in Venice …Great times ,Great people,fond memories !..Grazie !

  4. marianna raccuglia

    How interesting! I love Venice and I love this and your photos. Thank you


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