Wondering what those fancy Italian names mean? See our helpful guide below to explain the origin of some of the most popular and well known types of Venetian masks.
The Bauta Mask was made obligatory at certain decision-making events in Venice’s 18th century government. Regulated by those who ruled, the anonymity it provided the wearer ensured direct and equal participation in secret ballots. Made to cover the entire face, and with a large, beak-like nose stretching down to the chin, the wearer did not have to remove it to eat or drink (…making it perfect for those leading figures among you who want to maintain your complete mystery throughout your masked ball!)
Known as the ‘noble’ or ‘national’ mask of the Serene Republic, it was usually worn with a cape or veil that – along with the mask – were both affixed to a Tricorn (or three-cornered) hat. It is this whole ensemble, draped down to cover half of the wearer’s body, that is actually called the Bauta.
Although traditionally worn by men, women also turned to the Bauta and its heavy gild to hide the luxurious jewels and rich garments that were prohibited by law.
Bedecked in a regal Bauta, the lowest of the low could mix with those on high and receive the polite nod it was customary to give the wearer.
The Columbina (a.k.a. Colombina)
Meaning “little dove” in Italian, this mask is said to be named after an actress of the Commedia dell’Arte. The Columbina was a more feminine answer to the more severe Bauta. Almost always heavily decorated in gold, silver, jewels and feathers, it was initially designed so that it would cover only half of its actress namesake’s pretty face (making it the perfect mask for you to play coy with then, Ladies!) Worn by both men and women at the modern day Carnvale, the Columbina is often also attached to a baton or stick.
This long-nosed mask usually graced the face of a young man of adventure or a swashbuckling officer in Venetian theatre; boasting with his tales of defeating whole armies of Turks on crusades and carrying off the beard of the Sultan! (As would happen in the Commedia dell’Arte, this would also be the first character to run at the sign of trouble!) Nevertheless, it remained a character of great bravado and daring: dressed to impress in high boots, feathered hat and a cape, with perhaps not always the most noble of intentions… (Its use in Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic A Clockwork Orange notoriously springs to mind for you rascals out there!)
The Naso Turco
Also known as the Zanni, the Naso Turco portrayed one that had emigrated to Venice in search of work in the valleys around Bergamo. Seen as a comical character, the mask shows heavily protruding eyebrows and a curved, grotesque nose. The Naso Turco is one who is opposed to the Masters (or Magnifici) of the city; and although looked upon as having a dim-witted countenance, he became sly, cunning, meddling and downright cheeky once within the city walls… (Definitely one for those of you with devious designs on the outcome of your masked party!)
The Harlequin, or ‘Arlecchino’s’ principle trait was physical agility. His cartwheels and back flips were often what the audiences flocked to see at the Commedia dell’Arte! The character would never disappoint by merely performing an action, when he could wow the crowds with the dexterity of his moves (…Something to bear in mind if you are mind if you are known to light up the dance-floor at parties!) The Harlequin was also often the main love interest of the pretty Columbina. (What more perfect way could you make an entrance in our leather mask, that with a colour-matching Columbina ‘bella’ at your side?)
Cats were so scarce in the water-filled world of early Venice that they became the subject of one of its most popular masks. Literally meaning ‘cat’ in Italian, Venetian lore behind this mask tells of the one man who had one coming to the city from China. Although the China Man had no other possessions, his quick-witted cat rid the great palaces of all vermin making the Man very rich. Leaving the cat with his Venetian master, the Man returned to China with all his wealth. On return, an old jealous neighbour rushed to Venice with all the precious silks he could carry, thinking that he would be rewarded even more highly for much greater treasures than a simple feline. In payment for his sumptuous wares, the Venetian lords gave this neighbour their most treasured possession: the Cat! (A mask, it seems, for all you rare jewels out there!)
he origin of the Jester (or ‘Jolly’ for the ladies) goes back to prehistoric western tribal societies, but they are most commonly associated with medieval Europe. ‘Fools’ and Jesters were the symbolic twins of the King in court, thought to have been touched by God with a childlike madness. Having been assigned their role of cavorting around and behaving in an amusing way, such characters found employment despite their eccentric dispositions! Their everyday wear was very distinctive: brightly coloured clothes in a jumbled pattern; always crowned with the cloth ‘cap’ of pronged ‘ears’, each with a little bell at the end. It would be unwise to write the jester off as merely a comical buffoon, however… His thought-provoking and often downright inverted insights were often sought after in court, giving him quite the sooth-sayer’s lofty reputation! (One for all you silver-tongued wits in search of the most appropriate mask!)
The Dottore Peste
One of the most bizarre of our masks, the Plague or Pest Doctor’s huge beak had a specific reason which belies its sinister use: The plague stuck disastrously in Venice on several occasions, requiring the doctors of the time to guard against infection in the city’s more sordid environs. With all bare skin fully covered, in a hat, cape and long boots; their masks needed a space large enough in which to stuff spices and purifying herbs to protect the air that they breathed! Even the token spectacles on these masks once held crystal lenses to shield the wearer’s eyes! (For those of you with more ominous ideas for your masked event, The Pest Doctor will certainly ensure all inquisitive eyes on you…)