Venetian Mask History
Incredibly Venetian Mask History originates in Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs. The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra introduced masks to Italy through her powerful lover Julius Cesar.
Worldly Roman soldiers enjoyed bringing exotic gifts home for their loved ones. Artifacts, customs & slaves were brought to Europe via the conquering Roman Empire. Cleopatra gave cats as a gift to the Romans as she considered cats an essential tool to protect grain supplies from vermin.
Masquerade Masks were part of a popular Egyptian pagan festival, which celebrated the potential harvest and honored the “Sun God”.
Masks Get a Make Over by the Pope
Mask popularity continued to grow in Italy and the Mask Maker’s Guild of Venice began in 1436.
Around 1500 years ago, the Catholic Pope was concerned by the popularity of the pagan tradition of wearing masks. He included Masks in the Christian custom of Carnevale which is a 14 day celebration immediately before Lent’s 40 days of abstinence.
Carnevale flourished with new life after the Christian makeover but 14 days to enjoy disguise and freedom from the burden of marital status and class was not enough.
Venice and the Plague
As one of Europe’s most important trading ports, Venice endured the scourge of the Bubonic plague several times. Merchants used the thriving city port to access Europe. The worst outbreak in 1630 killed approximately 50,000 people. This was equal to one third of the population.
This extract from National Geographic shows the horror of the plague and ancient grave sites discovered with people buried on mass.
Ugly scars disfigured those who survived the plague. These survivors and those who wanted to enjoy freedom to act without recognition, engineered the fashion to include masks.
Masks an Everyday Fashion Accessory
Pictured Here: Everyday life in Venice with Zane Mask, Moretta Mask and Pulchinello
Every day Venice enjoyed Masquerade, not just at Carnevale and Balls but as a fashion item used as regularly as we would use sun glasses. Venice had all the ingredients required for a seriously good time. They had money, location, art, beauty, fashion, architecture, music and disguise. The city became a place of affairs, intrigue and debauchery.
Particular Masquerade Masks were traditional dress for subgroups within Venetian Society, like the Dottore Mask or Doctor of the Pestilence. The Moretta Mask was worn by unmarried ladies and the Gnaga Mask by gay men. Many more character masks emerged as Venice enjoyed freedom like no other city in the world.
Spanish Inquisition & Napoleon
Eventually, Masks reverted back to a Carnevale tradition as there were several attempts to ban them especially during the Spanish Inquisition. It is virtually impossible to police a ban against disguised offenders.
Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797 and he understood the security risk associated with disguise, so he banned the masks. Napoleon soon left the Venetian Republic, however the restriction on masks remained.
The Rebirth of Masks
Carnevale continued but without masks until 1979 when an artisan, Victor Fagarassi, decided to make some masks for his family. People were excited about wearing masks at Carnevale again. Victor, a kind artisan was touched by the poverty of the students at the Academia University that he decided to offer them work making masks. The Venetian Mask was reborn as people delighted in wearing Masks once again and the novelty became common place once more.
Pictured Here: A Mask painted by Victor’s wife Annalisa, shows the intricate hand painted artwork and attention to detail. Only the finest of strokes from the paint brush can create the veiled effect used on this mask.
As Victor tells the story, he did not even know how to make a mask. He anticipated that it was likely to be paper mache, as the Egyptian were good at making paper. He appreciated paper mache would be light and comfortable and not likely to sweat. Paper mache would make a perfect base for the artwork of his and his wife’s very skilled hands.
Travelers to Venice after 1979 Remember a City of Masks
Venice changed quickly from having no masks to being the “City of Masks”. Quaint little shops glittering with the most wonderful masquerade masks the world has to offer are now common in Venice. The kindness of a good man has brought new life to the Venetian Mask and some magic to the world.
The Great Masters still walk the Streets of Venice
I have been lucky enough to meet with Victor many times over the last 25 years, a giant man, very tall, quietly spoken, sincere with an aura of peace and love. He dwarfs all others as he walks down the narrow Calle’s of Venice and in proportion only, reminds me of Hagrid. He always sat on a chopped tree trunk instead of a chair to do his work with large yet very delicate hands.
Thankfully, I have met all the great masters from his generation. All of them have endeared themselves and enriched my life with stories of ancient Venice.
Carnevale ensures the longevity and authenticity of the Venetian Masquerade Mask, stimulating the creation of new styles for an ancient festival dating back thousands of years. The ingenuity of the Venetian artisan is respected world wide and Venetian Mask history & Carnevale add to the enjoyment of wearing an authentic Venetian Masquerade Mask.
Venetian Masks are from Venice, that why we call them Venetian
I believe, the greatest threat to Venice’s Mask culture is from dishonest traders selling Chinese made masks as Venetian Masks. Most Masks marketed in Australia that are described as “Venetian” are made in China. Sometimes they look similar but the copies are never identical. In my experience, they are without exception, never as good as the Italian Made Masks. We offer you both Venetian and Chinese Masks as we appreciate not all can afford the real thing.