The Venetian masks were probably my favorite part of Venice. Ok, second favorite. My favorite part was when I was sitting at a bar, by the Rialto Bridge, sipping on my aperol spritz and a fight broke out in the middle of the bar. There was something about Italian men yelling and breaking glass that made Venice extra special.
But besides that, the masks!! There were literally hundreds of hundreds of kiosks and stores which sold thousands of these, prices ranging from 15 to 500 euros, each one handmade differently and unique in its own way. The masks we see now aren’t quite the same as the ones true Venetians wore, centuries ago, without all the feathers and glitter. Nonetheless, their popularity has not died over the ages.
Venetian masks make for really nifty souvenirs that you can bring back and use as decoration or get as a gift for someone you love. So as I strolled through Venice, the Venetian mask virgin that I was, looking for my very first mask, I began to wonder what was the story behind each mask. There were so many different ones! I think my favorite one was this giant head of a lion. Needless to say it was waaay out of my budget and I ended up getting the little cat face one. (I have a slight obse… love, for cats)
Anyway, here’s a list of eight Venetian masks, what they are called and what story they mask. Pun intended.
1. Medico della peste
The Plague Doctor masks which originally weren’t intended for the Carnival fun.
As the name suggests these were worn by doctors during the deathly plague. The idea of the long pointy nose is to create distance between the patient and the doctor to decrease the risk of the disease spreading. Here’s the part I didn’t know – Often the inside of the nose would be stuffed with herbs for medicinal purposes and to keep the stinky smell of death at bay.
This mask strictly ties in with the entire outfit which is made up of mostly black (think Italian Zorro). The outfit was made up of a black tricorn hat, a black cloak/mantle, a veil and the mask which itself was plain and white. This outfit was the most protective of ones identity as it covered you from head to toe.
The masks points out a bit at the chin so that whoever wears it can easily eat and drink without taking the mask off and risk being identified. How convenient!
It is often associated with political gatherings or simply trouble makers roaming the streets looking to break a few rules.
The Italian cat mask was actually worn by men who wanted to disguise themselves as women. They were often seen wearing women’s clothing, caring a basket of kittens and hissing at passers by.
This mask creeeeeeps me out!! It reminds me of the hockey mask from Friday the 13th. Oddly enough the story behind is quite different.
These masks were round and made of black velvet accenting the feminine features. Though quite simple, they were worn by women and used as a flirting tool , to look mysterious and intriguing. Yes, really.
It’s also called the mute mask because women held these masks to their face by bitting a button that was on the inside.
This also gave the lady behind the mask a silent advantage – she could be very picky about the person she took her mask off for and engaged in conversation.
Volto masks are simple and most common, yet offer full coverage of the face. They are often designed as a two layer mask -the first layer looking like the face of a person, covering the lips and chin and the second layer more defined, possibly with gold and some kind of design, covering the eyes and on. Sort of like a mask on a mask.
They were typically worn by regular citizens and those who wanted to blend in and go about unnoticed.
The Pantalone mask is based on a character from the Commedia dell’Arte. His name, as you might have already guessed, was non other than Pantalone. He was sort of a big deal in the Italian theater, portrayed as an old, greedy, merchant of Venice who had a thing for younger women and what gal wouldn’t fall for an old man in red tights??
The mask itself has a pointy defined nose and a sort of angry brow line. The original Pantalone mask actually had hairy eyebrows and was painted to look like the face of an old man.
Meaning “little dove”, this is the half mask which only covers the eyes. Colombina is also a character from Commedia dell’Arte, a servant woman in ragged clothes who was known to walk around with a tambourine which she used to fend of the flirtatious Pantalone.
That’s how it’s done ladies, if a man gets too close, ferociously shake a tambourine at him!
Today the Colombina mask is more glammed up, with jewels and feathers, worn with something a little more fancy and outgoing.
This is another mask based on a character from Commedia dell’Arte, Arlecchino. who is the servant of the wittier Pantalone.
In the original Italian theater, the Arlecchino mask, made of clay, covering the face with a questioning look, was very different from ones you can find today which resembles the jester, with bright colors, a large headpiece and bells.
Over time some of the Arlecchino masks were made to look more devilish, as Arlecchino was a trickster, usually acting against his master, Pantalone, who just so happens to hit on Colombina – Arlecchino’s lover.
So if you ever end up in Venice, strolling on by canal grande and decide you’d like to become an owner of a Venetian mask, make sure to be picky. Venice literally offers thousands of these and some merchants, which prey on tourists, bump up their prices.
Don’t throw yourself at the first kiosk you stumble upon.
Also, be wary of the fact that a lot of the merchants do not appreciate you taking pictures with their masks on if you don’t purchase it first. You can try it on, just keep the cameras away. Some will even have a sign posted, stating that taking pictures is not allowed. I’m not sure exactly how far they’ll go to prevent you from doing so, but be respectful and don’t find out!
So do you own a Venetian mask? Which mask is your favorite?
I'm Sandra, creator of Whispers of Adventure.
I'm a crazy dreamer with a love for adventure and new experiences. With my passion for writing and capturing the moment with a lens, I hope to inspire you for your next adventure!