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History of Venetian Masks: their origins and characteristics

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The Venice Carnival and the famous Venetian masks are known throughout the world. It is possibly, along with the Rio Carnival, one of the most popular carnival celebrations, attracting hundreds of tourists every year.

What is the origin of the Venetian Carnival and its masks? Is it true that the latter are related to the Black Death of the 14th century? When did Carnival begin to be celebrated in the city of canals? In today's article, we analyze this celebration and trace its roots and development throughout history.

Origins and characteristics of Venetian masks

The first documentary mention we have about the Venice Carnival is from the 13th century; specifically, from the year 1268. This is an edict prohibiting masked men from throwing eggs at women. It seems that this tradition, an obvious antecedent to the bombs filled with water, consisted of exploding eggs filled with liquid in the bodies of women passing by on the street. Of course, it was a very smelly liquid, since it was nothing less than rose water.

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The medieval Carnival: when borders are broken

We must look for the general origins of Carnival much further back, since the festival that know is nothing more than the distortion of a very ancient celebration that we already find in ancient times. Rome. Specifically, in the Lupercalia, a festival that dated back to the founding of Rome and commemorated the raising of Romulus and Remus by the sacred she-wolf.

The lupercos, the young people chosen to carry out the celebration, began the celebration through a ritual laughter. A laugh that connects with other carnival traditions, since only through laughter can the mockery, irony and derision typical of carnivals arise.

But, probably, the Roman festivals most directly inspiring the later medieval carnival were the Saturnalia, which was celebrated in honor of the god Saturn and during which, for a few days, the social order was reversed: the slaves were treated like kings and their own masters they served

We see, therefore, that The essence of Carnival is none other than the destruction of borders and the reversal of roles. These are days when there are no laws or regulations, when everything is allowed. The medieval Carnivals take up this idea and elevate the celebration to a true apotheosis of the fool, the madman, the poor, the who is commonly exiled from society, and flood the festival with mockery of authority, both civil and religious.

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Instrument of cohesion and display of power

Therefore, it is easily deduced that the medieval Carnival was not restricted to the Venetian area, but was a common festival in all regions of Christendom. The reason that Venice is the one that has transcended the most is due to a series of factors. Let's see it.

We have already said how the first documents that attest to the presence of Carnival in Venice date back to the 13th century, but in all probability the celebration already existed, at least, since the 11th century. Some historians believe that we owe the origins of Carnival in the city of canals to the congregations that They were given in Piazza San Marco on the occasion of the victory of the Republic of Venice against the Patriarch of Aquileia, in the century XII. On the other hand, The officialization of the festival did not occur in the city until the end of the 13th century.

In the last centuries of the Middle Ages, the Venetian Republic rose as the great power of the Mediterranean. Its political hegemony in Eastern Europe, as well as its thriving trade, which connected with the merchants of Asia, made the Serenissima one of the greatest political realities of the time.

Carnival, therefore, and as Gilles Bertrand collects in his wonderful study on the history of this festival in Venice, began to mean much more than a popular entertainment: it became an instrument of power. As? Through the ostentation of costumes, scenery and wealth, Venice openly showed its extraordinary power, both political and economic, to its foreign visitors.

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Masks and baroque splendor

But, Although the Venetian Carnival dates back to the early Middle Ages, the masks that we currently have from the carnival tradition are much later.. Most of them come from the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Carnival reached its maximum splendor in the city of canals.

Specifically, the so-called mask began to gain strength bauta, white and flat, which was usually worn with a tricorn and a tabarro (a kind of cape). The uniform was black, which highlighted the somewhat disturbing whiteness of the bauta. This type of mask was made especially famous by Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), the famous Don Juan, who popularized the outfit during his amorous escapades.

The manufacture of masks, however, has been documented in the city since long before. Not only in the 13th century do we find, as we have already said, the first documentary allusion to “masked men”, but in April 1436, the mascherieri or Venetian mask makers sign the first statute of their guild. This gives us an idea of ​​the great importance that this trade had in the city; In the 18th century there were no less than twelve official workshops, where these highly appreciated accessories were manufactured and sold.

And it is that The Venice Carnival not only extended through the days before Lent, but other periods of the year are documented in which citizens were also masked. For example, during the Ascension, which covered no less than fifteen days.

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Bubonic plague and the “plague doctor”

If we look at the typical costumes and masks, we see that the predominant tones were black, white and silver. Bright colors began to be used much later, to the point that today it is impossible for us to imagine Carnival with dull colors. And speaking of typical masks, what about the famous mask called plague doctor?

The rumor that this mask is related to the bubonic plague is true, it just did not arise during the feared plague of the 14th century. Let us remember that there were many plague epidemics, and many of them occurred in the 17th century. It is then that the doctors begin to wear a curious outfit, with their bodies completely covered and a peaked mask covering their faces. The explanation is simple: At that time the humoral theory of Hippocrates and Galen, which explained the contagion of diseases.

In other words, the effects of the pathogens were not known, and the evil was believed to come from “breathing putrid miasmas.” Consequently, doctors covered their faces with this type of masks that, as they were provided with a kind of "peak", allowed the air to be "purified" before it entered the nostrils. For greater “efficiency”, they were filled with aromatic plants.

The Napoleonic decline and the recovery of Carnival

The 18th century was the great century of Carnival and Venetian masks. Stage paraphernalia and costumes and masks reached their zenith, encouraged by a gallant era (that of the Rococo) in which masquerades and parties were very much in vogue.

But with the end of the 18th century came the decline of Carnival. In 1797 the Republic of Venice fell and Napoleon occupied the city. One of his first edicts was to prohibit Carnival, a prohibition that remained active during the annexation to the Austrian Empire. The joy of the celebration was only recovered at the end of the 19th century, although it did not materialize officially. until 1979, when the rise of tourism and the incipient economy based on leisure made its possible Renaissance. To the present day.
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