The first time masked faces were said to have been seen dancing in the Piazza di San Marco was in 1162, while Venice existed under its eloquent previous name, La Repubblica di Serenissima. Victory over the Patriarch of the ancient Roman town of Aquileia, and its ensuing masked celebrations in the town square were repeated, and became official by the Renaissance.
But what are the reasons behind the masks of the vibrant festival that became known as the Carnevale di Venezia? What is it about such an enigmatic spectacle that has caused the masquerade party to soar in popularity, up to and including in the present day?
Historically, masks have long been found in the streets of Venice. One only has to visit even the modern city to see how close-quartered its buildings, and how narrow its passages are! There wasn’t much opportunity for individual privacy or anonymity. Masquerading became common place, regardless of wealth or whether one was of bold disposition. Everything from gambling, to acts of then illegal eroticism could be indulged in disguise. Lucky wins and taboo sexual preferences could be hidden away from average society. In short, the mask was an outlet for true personality, one normally kept veiled for fear of being judged by others!
Despite such illicit decadence, Venetian masks were openly allowed between the Festival ofSanto Stefano (Dec 26th) and the start of carnival season at midnight of Shrove Tuesday. There was also Ascension, and from October 5th to Christmas where masquerading was practiced, adding to a large part of the year people could live as their alter egos. As a result, the mask makers or Mascherari of Venice enjoyed an exalted position in society, complete with their own guild and laws!
Masquerading thrived in Venice until Napoleon put an end to the party in 1797, with the inclusion of the city in the Austrian-heldKingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. When the Austrians took control of the city, its world-prominence as a port withered and it fell into decline. The Carnevale di Venezia would not re-surface for almost another two centuries!
Fascism in Italy was unlikely to resurrect Carnevale, so it was not until the late 1970’s that mask workshops began to re-appear. Today, it has once again blossomed into a world-class celebration of uninhibited glamour and dramatic liberation. The mask remains a symbol of the perfect way to hide to reveal one’s true self!