In a couple of months’ time, Venice will again be transformed into one huge magical setting. People from all over the world will dress up like centuries ago. They will relive the period of La Serenissima and the old Venetian traditions.
The Carnevale di Venezia 2019 takes place from February 16 until March 5, 2019. The first weekend is mainly attended by locals and less focused on masks and costumes. This Festa Veneziana is however certainly worth a trip to Venice. The majority of the Carnival festivities starts on February 23 with the Festa delle Marie.
In this post, I will give you some background on the masks and costumes, as well as tips on how to prepare yourself for Carnevale with a traditional Venetian mask and costume. In the second article of this post, I will give you an overview of the different activities that take place all over the city and tell you about the historical background of the Carnival events: ‘The insider’s guide to Carnevale di Venezia’.
A huge variety of Venetian masks and costumes
The Venice Carnival is famous for its stunning masks and costumes. Different from other carnivals in the world, the majority of the costumes refer to the attire of the Venetian noblemen and women in the past. The Carnival is in fact one big historical re-enactment. The costumes are often excessively decorated with lots of attention for detail. Some are real pieces of art and required hours of work. You will notice that they often match one another, either by using similar colours or a matching design. This is especially the case for couples, but it is also done for families or small groups of friends.
INSIDER TIP: If you are interested in the history of Venetian dresses and costumes, I recommend a visit to the Palazzo Mocenigo. The 20 rooms of the Palazzo do not only show the different aspects of the life and activities of a Venetian nobleman between the 17th and 18th century. There are also many valuable ancient garments and accessories on display.
Besides these aristocratic masks, there are also the traditional masks and costumes that originate from the world of the commedia dell’arte. This type of theatre started in Italy in the 16th century. It is characterized by improvised sketches and masked characters. If you are keen to know more about this, I suggest you read the book ‘The Venetian Origins of the Commedia dell’Arte’. I would personally choose between one of the following sets to dress up and mingle amongst the crowds.
- The Baùta is one of the most popular costumes. The white mask with a square jaw line hides the face completely. It doesn’t have a mouth, but it is tilted upwards to allow you to eat and drink while wearing the mask. It should be worn with a cape and a black hat (tricorn). It was a standard society mask in the 18th century. At certain political decision-making events, it was even mandatory to come masked to the meeting to ensure everyone could act anonymus. It became the symbol of the freedom of expression.
- The Medico della Peste mask with a long white beak was worn by doctors while treating plague victims in Venice in the 17th century. They filled the beak with aromatic senses in the hope that it would prevent them from contracting the disease. It should be worn with a black cloak and white gloves. A stick to keep the sick people on a distance makes your outfit complete. The costume is a symbol of death.
- The Pantalone mask has a hooked nose, protruding eyebrows and a pointed beard. It represents the old merchant Pantalone, who was a symbol of the Venetian bourgeoisie and always thinking about business, and women.
- The Arlecchino originates from Bergamo. The costume has a chequered colourful jacket and trousers, with a felt hat decorated with a rabbit or fox tail. The mask has cat-like traits with a blunt nose and a bump on the forehead. This refers to his acrobatic adventures which usually end up with some bruises. He is a fraudulent and not very nice character, but he knows how to spice things up.
- Columbina is the friend of Arlecchino and a cunning servant. Her costume comes most often without a mask. She wears a patched dress with an apron and a white bonnet. If you would like to add a mask, it should be a half-mask decorated with gold, silver, crystals and feathers. The story goes that the costume was designed on the specific request of an actress who didn’t want to cover her face.
- The Gnaga mask resembles a cat and is usually worn with women’s clothes (also by men!) and a white bonnet. To top it off, you can carry a basket with a kitten.
Other masks refer to a loser that looks like a chicken with his crooked nose (Pulcinella), or to an obese man who has no emotions (Balanzone), so I personally prefer one of the ‘nicer’ masks. One of the very difficult and unpractical masks to wear, and therefore less popular, is the Moretta (the mute servant). The round black velvet mask requires you to hold a button between your teeth to hold the mask in front of your face.
The art of the Venetian mask making
Most of the Venetian masks are still hand-made from papier-mâché. In the past, this material was preferred as it was the cheapest material and easy to repair when the mask was damaged. The mask maker (mascarer in Italian) starts from a mould (in clay or sometimes plaster) which can be re-used as a base for several masks. He presses paper pulp onto the mould and lets it dry. When it’s dry, he nicely cuts the shape and starts the decoration. This can be done by painting, but also by adding small decorative parts. In the end, every mask will be unique. Everything is done manually, so it does not only require time, but primarily a very steady hand. If you would like to see this mask making process, you can watch this video on the YouTube channel of La Fucina dei Miracoli.
To keep the ancient art of mask making alive in Venice, the Compagnia l’Arte dei Mascareri was created two years ago. Several of their members are amongst those who re-started the ancient art of mask making in Venice when Carnevale was revived around 1979. For their 40 members, the Carnevale di Venezia is the summum of the year.
Since 2008, a new type of mask has been introduced by La Fucina dei Miracoli when Lucia Zerman invented the metal filigree mask. Starting from original hand-drawings, these masks are made with quality materials (hypoallergenic and waterproof paint; gold or silver galvanic plating) and then hand decorated with original Swarovski crystals. The metal filigree masks have been inspired by baroque decorations and are a lighter, more comfortable version of the traditional Venetian masks. They have therefore become very popular.
More information on the use of masks in the history of Venice can be found in the book ‘Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic’. Or if you are more interested in the artisanal activities of mask making, I suggest the e-book ‘Artisans of Venice’ of Laura Morelli.
Where to find your mask or costume?
When you wander around Venice, you will come across plenty of shops that sell masks. I strongly advise you to buy your mask from a real Venetian artisan who has his own workshop. It might cost a bit more, but you will be the proud owner of a unique and hand-made Venetian piece of art.
I have personally already bought several masks from Atelier Marega. This workshop has 2 shops on the Fondamenta dell’Osmarin in Castello and 1 shop in San Polo. They craft many beautiful designs, from very simple to very detailed. It is certainly worth your visit. I always find it difficult to leave the shop without buying anything. A large selection of the masks can also be bought via their online mask shop. Atelier Marego can also help you with a full costume, either for rent or for sale. You can order it online on their website before leaving for Venice.
You will also find many artisanal mask shops when you cross the Rialto bridge and then turn left. Take your time to wander around in this area and choose one that you like. The masks are not only ‘made’ for Carnival, but they also make beautiful decoration objects in your house.
One of the famous costume designers of Venice is Francesco Briggi of the Atelier Pietro Longhi, which he started 20 years ago. His workshop was even mentioned in the ‘Inferno’ novel of Dan Brown. He is the official designer of the dresses of the 12 Marie and the Eagle, as well as for the events such as the ‘Gallery of Wonders’ at the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi. You can visit the shop in San Polo or order your gorgeous costume online from the detailed catalogue with all the models, sizes and prices.
Buongiorno Siora Maschera!
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