Venetian masks tradition
The use of masks during the life of the Venetian Republic
remains one of mankind's notably eccentric practices. Indeed, masks have been worn in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years, but perhaps never with such fervent pageantry as in Venice, an incredible place to find unique and precious masks
For approximately eight hundred years, the Republic enjoyed a position of unrivaled superiority. Considered a breed apart from its European cousins, Venice was unquestionably the most extravagant, most beautiful state on the Continent. The shipyards were capable of turning out a battleship every thirty days and employed 15,000 men (in a state with a scarce 150,000 people). The routes of trade under the Republic's control extended all the way to Constantinople and beyond in the form of varied and extensive caravans, sultanates, and "friends". The Republic did not hold these routes uncontested for any long stretches of time - it was under constant duress from rival states. But hold them it did. As a result, as Marco Polo said, "All the gold in Christendom flows through the hands of the Venetians."
Unlike the vast majority of their counterparts in contemporary European nations, each citizen in Venice enjoyed a high standard of living. Everyone was part of the great economic machine that was the Republic. Venice was capitalizing on its position, on its gains, long before its contemporaries had realized the value of a market economy. With a level of social wealth unequaled since, the citizens of Venice developed a unique culture - one in which the concealing of the identity in daily life became paramount to daily activity. Part of the secrecy was pragmatic: there were things to do, people to see, and perhaps you might not want others to know what deals you were cutting. After all, the city is relatively small.
Additionally, the masks served an important social purpose of keeping every citizen on an equal playing field. Masked, a servant could be mistaken for a nobleman - or vice versa. State inquisitors and spies could question citizens without fear of their true identity being discovered (and citizens could answer without fear of retribution). The morale of the people was maintained through the use of masks - for with no faces, everyone had voices.
As a result of the concealment of identity, however, people naturally found themselves taking advantage of the situation. The society grew ever more decadent. The immense amount of travelers coming through the city meant that sexual promiscuity was commonplace and acceptable. Gambling went on all day and night in the streets and houses, even in convents. Women's clothing became more revealing; homosexuality, while publicly condemned, was embraced by the populace. Even the nuns and monks of the clergy, bejeweled and dressed in the latest imported creations, wore masks and engaged in the same acts as the majority of their fellow citizens. Rome turned a blind eye, as long as the Republic continued to make generous donations.
The Republic fell into a state of luxury, indolence, and moral decay. Eventually the wearing of masks in daily life was banned and limited only to certain months of the year. During the last year of the Republic's existence, this period extended for over three months from December 26. It was gradually shortened into the week-long festivities that now comprise Carnevale, elsewhere known as Mardi Gras.
The Republic's long, sinuous spiral into legendary history came slowly. With the advent of new sea routes skating Africa, Venice lost its monopoly on Eastern trade. The Republic had grown somewhat complacent about maintaining its varied Mediterranean colonies - most were overtaken by the Ottoman Empire. The British and Dutch were rising to the challenge of the New World - something which Venice in its protected Sea was unable even to imagine. In response to the paradigm shift, Venice went on a two hundred-fifty-year bender - one that would end with Napoleon sanctimoniously handing over the dissolute Republic to Austria.
The original Venetian masks were rather simple in design and decoration and they often had a symbolic and practical function.
Masks were often used to protect gamblers from giving away indiscrete looks, especially to avoid their creditors, or by "barnaboti" noblemen who went banrupt, begging on street corners.
The use of masks by both Venetians and foreign visitors during Carnival, created a demand for masks and consequently contributed to the evolution of the figure of the mask-makers, mascareri, registered artisans who created and sold masks in papier-mâché.
Masks were produced for centuries in Venice by the mascareri and still today are made from papier-mâché, in many different colors and styles.
Venetian Masks can be classified under two major groups: Commedia Dell'Arte and Carnival Masks. Both of these have several characters, some gender specific, and many have legends attached to them. Traditional Venetian Masks are made with either Porcelain or Papier Mache, making them either fragile or heavy. Although in Venice they were worn often, sometimes on a daily basis, now they are commonly used for decoration in the home.
Commedia Dell'Arte is translated from Italian to mean "comedy of professional artists" and was a form of improvisational theater that was popular during the 16th through the 18th centuries. Traveling teams of actors would set a stage outside and provide amusement to passers by juggling, acrobatics, and humorous plays based on a repertoire of established characters with a rough story line called "Canovaccio". Their performances were improvised and used stock situations such as jealousy, old age, love and adultery.
Venice had the reputation for having the most famous carnival in the world. Every social class was invited, and they all wore masks, representing the collective magic that was taking place. As with Commedia Dell'Arte, the Carnival masks have many characters as well.
Venetian masks were typically made using Papier-Mache. They would begin by making a plaster mold for the mask, then lubricating it with Vaseline. The Vaseline is quite possibly the most important part of the entire process, for if not applied the mask would be stuck to the mold. They would then stack several layers of special absorbent paper torn into small pieces onto it, pressing them into the mold with their fingers to be sure there were no air bubbles in the mask. When the shaping was done, the mold was placed into a special oven where it dried.
After it was dry, the Artisan Mask-Maker would remove the mold, cut open the eyeholes, sand the surface, and varnish and wax the face.
Here is where the magic would begin.
The masks were, and still are, decorated by hand. Each one is a separate work of art.