Venetian masks and their heritage

Venetian masks and their heritage

Here I would like to give a you a short introduction into the historical and current carnival of Venice.

I do not claim to “know” the exact historical facts (since I am not a historian). It is the history of the Venetian carnival as far as I have learned and read and (the current one) experienced it. If you as a reader know something better than I have learned by now, I am thankful for your advice where to find better facts.


The “Carnevale di Venezia” was first noted in 1094 in a paper of Doge Vitale Falier. At that time young men paraded through the city in animal skins and sang about the beauty of the Venetian women and the good food there.

In the following 200 years the game of “egg throwing” (men threw perfume filled eggs at women) was very popular and forbidden in 1268. From 1162 the “Giovedi grasso”, the “fat thursday” was celebrated, going back to the victory of Doge Vitale Michiel II. over the patriarch of Aquileia (back then Ulrich II. von Treven, Bavaria). After that the patriarch had to give an ox and 12 pigs to the city of Venice every year, which then were slaughtered as a symbolic killing of the patriarch an then were given to feed the poor. Until 1520 it was the bloody highlight of the Carnevale, then forbidden.

Later young men of the sestiere, the six areas of Venice, held contests in boxing and building pyramids of people, sword fight and fireworks.

1548 the attraction of the “Flight of the Angel” , then known as “Flight of the Turk” was added and is celebrated today again. An acrobat balances on a steel rope from the Campanile tower across St. Marks square. Today usually celebrities are pulled over the square on a rope.

In the 18th century the carnival was also garnished with jugglers, artists, magicians, dwarfs and burlesque theatre. 1751 even a rhino was displayed and painted by famous Pietro Longhi. Napoleon captured the city in 1797 and shortly after he forbid the Carnevale in general to condemn suspicious behavior. Other sources say it were the Austrians who forbid the carnival.

Present time:

In the 70s of the 20th century the carnival was rekindled by the tourism board to get more tourists into town during winter. Nowadays about 1,5 million (in 1701 it were about 30,000) from all over the world come to see and celebrate the Venetian carnival. In one weekend they leave about 80 million Euro in town.

High time and masks:

The 18th century is regarded as the high time of the old carnival. It was very much in fashion to wear traditional costumes like baut(t)a, tricorno and tabarro to formal events like theatre and other times of the year (26th to ashwednesday = carnevale, between October and December to events and after pentacost to July). Then and in earlier time costumes (in the 16th century the Commedia dell’Arte was developed and costumes and masks out of that tradition were transferred to wear in carnival – Arlechino, Colombina, Pulcinella) were used to disguise for adventures of all kind such a conspiration and intimate encounters of all variations. Also nuns and priests were engaged in many bawdily ways. Other masks such as the “Moretta” a dark velvet mask for women held by a knob that had to be taken in the mouth so women couldn’t speak, were developed in relation to Venice and its history. Since renaissance mythology played a role in the art of costumes. In the 16th century bizarre costumes with themes of gods and planets etc. showed up.
Present carnival:

Today we find about 2000 costumes (that are worth calling them so) in the streets of Venice on the carnival weeks and the peak weekend before Ashwedesday.
Appr. 400 costume makers from all over the world (mostly Germans, French and Austrians) are presenting their creations in a competition that is held on the peak weekend. The “Grande Sfilata” the grand parade on Tuesday (used to be Sunday) shows appr. the best 80 costumes.

A jury (usually consisting of the art director of the carnival, a local artist and a celebrity – Vivienne Westwood was on the jury in 2005, 2009 it was the Oscar Academy Award winner for costume design Gabriella Pescucci) and a choreographer chose the finalists between the 400 on a catwalk in St. Mark’s square in front of an average of 100,000 to 125,000 spectators. There are qualifications and a main show. Everybody is allowed to try for taking part in the show, but only the best are chosen. There are no objective guidelines for the judgement of the jury. In one year they value one aspect of a costume, in the next year it might be a different thing that is important to them (e.g., creativity, historcal correctness, colours in fashion, material…whatever).

Nowadays various kinds of costumes can be seen in Venice:

  • strictly epoch dresses (mostly16th to 18th century), that style that can be rented in several shops in town, also some afficionados make them at home, but try to strictly copy patterns from the past
  • 70s white mask costumes, referring to Pierrot-style; full face white mask with huge dresses of tulle, lace, satin with tons of pearls and rhinestone. These are the most used motifs for postcards. Their style was created when the carnival was revived in the 70s. They sometimes have no theme, are just big, bright and reflect a “lost-in-reverie”-beauty, that goes well with the atmosphere of Venice. Some costume makers chose themes like “Neptun” etc. They return every year in different varieties. These costumes, funny as it is, cannot be bought or rented in shops in Venice. They are almost 100% “homemade” but are about 95% of fotos that are used in Venice foto books.
  • Commedia dell’Arte costumes. They are few but are more the traditional Venetian costumes. The theatre form of the Commedia goes back to the 16th century, the most well known and used drawings of costumes of that kind by Maurice Sand (author George Sands son) were made in the 19th century. They are seen everywhere in town in books, postcards and papers. Sometimes even today plays of this burlesque form of theatre can been seen during carnival times in the streets and places of Venice. Some costume makers also favor the masks of the Commedia and combine them with other styles. But the masks of the Commedia are regarded as the most true masks of the Venetian carnival due to their tradition.
  • Theme costumes. Some costume makers prefer to chose a theme that they interpret. Mostly they use epoch dresses or suits (justaucorps) to connect an idea with the atmosphere of the “high time” of Carnevale di Venezia.
  • Gothic costumes. During the last years also people who like to wear gothic clothes, do role play, LARP or cosplay show up. They use the wonderful carnival atmosphere to have a stage to present their costumes. Which is not necessarily popular in Venice but tolerated since it is a very special point of the Venetian Carnival to give everybody who loves costumes a niche.

Revised 2015