In use since the early 12th century, Venetian masks were the people’s answer to the rigid class structure that existed in Europe; a way for lovers to unite, for partners to be promiscuous, for homosexuals to unite in a societal structure that equalled them with demons and women to dress boldly.
In a wealthy Venice where money flowed free like the water through its canals, pleasures of life were easier to come by than freedom and this included the freedom of thought and its expression. The mask also came to be used to strike secret business deals and to carry out spy work. With Venetians ‘masking’ their lives completely, it came to be worn every day becoming their “anonymous chat ID”, if you will.
The modern reference to such masks in the famous film Eyes Wide Shut was, thus, not wary off the mark when Tom Cruise infiltrates a masquerade ball where men of influence were engaging in ‘sexcapades’. While the Venetian mask featuring in the film made them a sudden rage the world over, putting the spot light on the almost forgotten art, the news of their use was no more novel than love itself.
Early mentions of the Venetian masks reinforce mischievous uses it was put to. The Venetian Law itself mentions masked men throwing scented eggs at ladies during the carnival, an act which was prohibited by law.
The antics of the Venetians carried on until the 1100s when the Church banned its use on holy days in hope that this would check people’s immoral behaviour. The ban restricted the masks’ use to a small period starting December 26. Over time, this further got cut down to a week-long period, when Venetians indulged in the run up to Lent, called Carnevale.
Though intending to curtail debauchery, the ban gave birth to one of the most intriguing festivals, “The Carnival of Venice”, where art is celebrating in a week-long orgy of master craftsmanship.
The modern times may have led mask makers to create experimental masks in keeping with changing tastes. Popular traditional disguises in early Venice included the fisherman with a rod, demon, butcher, doctor, sailor and even a dancing bear. However, one of the most popular and beautiful was the moon Venetian masks.
In both Pagan and in Christian semiotics, the moon has been representative of the female form and the sun of the masculine, other than in Germany where it is the opposite. The moon also symbolizes the lovers seeking to hide in the lunar shadows. Thus, it stands as a favourite among the young.
These moon masks and the sun masks, both full-face and half are the most ornamental and delicately carved of all.
Traditionally made of paper mache, clay, porcelain and glass, the Venetian masks are today made of every conceivable material. On a stick or full-face, simply white or flambouyant gold and feathery; master craftsman can chisel something for everyone to unleash the masquerader within.
by Marina Chernyak