Venice – The meaning of masks
From the bleak and macabre Medico Della Peste to the revered Gatto, every mask seen in Venice has a deeper meaning.
Typically worn during the Carnival of Venice, but a common sight throughout the year, Venetian masks are a centuries-old tradition.
Often used to disguise the wearer’s identity and social status, masks would allow people to act more freely – often in a promiscuous or decadent manner.
Many a sin would have been hidden behind these paper-mache facades, wildly decorated with everything from fur to gems, fabric to feathers.
But initially Venice’s culture of masks had a more noble calling.
The high standard of life enjoyed by the hugely successful citizens of this sea-faring republic produced a unique culture; one in which the concealing of identity became increasingly important.
Much of this secrecy was pragmatic. Successful merchants are, by definition, busy merchants.
With things to do, people to see and deals to cut – some of which you may want to keep quiet – masks became a handy tool for avoiding distractions and maintaining privacy.
They also helped to keep people on an even footing. A mask meant a servant could be a nobleman – or vice-versa.
State inquisitors could question civilians without giving away their identity – while those probed could answer without fear of retribution.
In short, Venice’s culture of masks meant that with no faces, everyone had voices.
But human nature, as with everything, saw the system abused.
Society became ever more decadent, with sexual promiscuity and gambling commonplace and acceptable.
Women’s clothing became more revealing; homosexuality, while publicly condemned, was embraced by the populace.
The situation reached such a level of moral decay that the wearing of masks in daily life was banned and limited to certain months of the year.
After the 1100s, the masquerade was regularly outlawed by the Catholic Church, particularly on holy days.
Eventually, a level of acceptance crept in and the time between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday was designated for Venetian mask-attired decadence.
This period evolved into the Carnival of Venice.
Despite a loss of popularity during the Enlightenment period, the carnival was officially re-introduced in 1979.
The Italian government decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice, and sought to use the traditional Carnival as the centerpiece of its efforts.
The redevelopment of the masks began as the pursuit of some Venetian college students.
And today, around three million visitors come to Venice every year for Carnival.
But what of those mysterious masks mentioned at the start of this history?
The Medico Della Peste is the famous ‘plague doctor’ masks, best known for its long beak.
The striking design dates back to the 17th Century when French physician, Charles de Lorme, wore the mask while treating plague victims.
White with a hollow beak and round eye holes covered with crystal discs to create the effect of glasses, the modern version of the Medico Della Peste is often accompanied by a black hat, long black cloak and a stick.
These symbolise further precautions taken by doctors following de Lorme’s example and were originally adopted to create greater distance to patients.
The Gatto mask has a far happier history.
Gatto means cat in Italian, and the mask is said to be a celebration of one animal in particular.
Legend has it a man who owned nothing but his old cat came to Venice from China.
The cat rid the palace of all its mice and the man became rich. When he went back home, his rich neighbour was green with envy.
He rushed to Venice with his most precious silks, thinking that if a mere cat made the other man rich, he would be enormously rewarded for these precious items.
Indeed, the Duke promised him his most precious possession in return for his gifts… and the neighbour went home with the cat.
He may well have needed a mask to hide his embarrassment.