The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (2023)

The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (1)

The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks

The practice of masking during carnival celebrations dates back all the way to the fourth century BCE and was widespread throughout Europe by the fifteenth century. These colorful disguises were most popular in Southern Europe, where festivals were more common and masks were more elaborate, becoming particularly famous in Venice, Italy (Carpenter, 9). The practice of masking helped to create atmospheres of freedom and opportunity, allowing masked participants to remain anonymous and therefore drop their inhibitions and shames to let themselves have fun. Over the long history of Carnival in Venice, the decorative face masks of revelers have been both a staple of the celebration and the source of much criticism. While there were a lot of examples of objections against masking and celebrating Carnival from both religious and social standpoints, that never stopped both men and women from participating.

  • The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (2)
  • The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (3)

Masking was traditionally a man’s game. For each Carnival celebration, men would dress up and roam the streets while women played the important role of participating as spectators to their elaborate masquerade. However, by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries masking had become a unisex practice (Carpenter 10).

(Video) The art of Venetian masks

  • The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (4)
  • The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (5)

One of the most prominent criticisms of Carnival and masking was the opportunities for mischief that it created. Venetian Carnival masks had many designs and inspirations, with characteristics that could either construct or erase the essential aspects of a reveler’s identity. Unlike celebrations like Saturnalia, the debauchery that accompanied carnival was not rooted in any subversion of power but from the illusion of freedom and suspension of truth that the masks provided partygoers (Quinn, 74). This illusion of freedom, this distance from personal accountability, could be created using two distinct kinds of masks: those that created an elaborate false identity and those that erased individuality to make you just one of the crowd.

Traditional Carnival masks that construct false identities in order to conceal the reveler beneath often drew their inspiration from the commedia dell’arte, which was an early form of professional Italian theatre that utilized character archetypes in distinctive masks and costumes. These archetypes were static and predictable for long enough that they became staples of Italian storytelling and visual art, and many iconic carnival masks are in the style of these characters, including the Zanni, Pantalone, and Colombina masks. While these masks were used to create characterization in theatre, they were then subverted to erase identity when worn by carnival-goers in the crowd. Commedia dell’arte-inspired masks are most frequently half-mask designs since actors who wore similar masks on stage needed the lower portion of their face free to deliver their lines effectively.

The Zanni mask is one of the most distinctive of Venetian carnival masks, despite being a secondary character archetype in most traditional theatre. Zanni is the name of an overarching group of stock characters that the commedia dell’arte utilized, ascribed to clowns and stupid servants such as Harlequin. The Zanni mask is a half-mask characterized by a scrunched, low brow and a long thin nose, both of which were considered signifiers of stupidity. The lower the brow or longer the nose, the less intelligent the character being portrayed. While bumbling and crude, Zanni characters were also known for their nimbleness and were the most animated among their cast. Their lack of intelligence was sometimes a source of conflict, sometimes a source of comedic relief, but the distinctive shape of the mask helps it stand out in a crowd and makes it a favorite among modern carnival attendees.

Pantalone is another stock character that was commonly portrayed with a half-mask and exaggerated features. This mask style is most often marked by a high brow and a prominent hooked nose, paired with pronounced wrinkles and bushy eyebrows to channel the appearance of a wizened old man. In contrast to Zanni masks, these deep-set wrinkles paired with the high forehead were used to signify wisdom, and sometimes despair. The Pantalone mask is traditionally worn by men and continues to be worn to celebrations, but the sad old man archetype has seen a decline in popularity in modern carnival.

(Video) The Fascinating History of Venice Mask Making!

The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (6)

The Colombina mask is based on the character of Colombina in the commedia dell’arte, a well-known and well-loved young female character who was often a maid or spouse in plays. Despite deriving directly from the commedia dell’arte, the Colombina mask is a relatively modern invention. Colombina in traditional theatre was an unmasked character archetype and the actress would instead be signified by her heavy makeup and ornamentation. On occasion, the character would wear a domino mask, which has been adapted into today’s popular party mask. While the traditional form of the Colombina character wore no mask, a common story for the origin of this domino mask is that the character of Colombina was so vain that never wanted to obscure her features with a full mask. The Colombina mask is a heavily decorated half-mask, covering only the upper portion of the face and held in place by being tied by a ribbon or held in position with a baton. In modern carnival, both men and women wear the Colombina mask.

The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (7)

While these types of character masks were and are very popular, they are only one side of the coin. Where commedia dell’arte masks were constructive, establishing an expectation based on the source, other masks were subtractive and designed to completely erase individuality and identifying factors.

The bauta mask is one mask design utilized by Carnival-goers who wished to stay anonymous. These masks were a blank slate, with simple decorations or no decoration at all, a wide nose, and square jaw that extended outward instead of curling back around the face. With these exaggerated features, just about any face could fit beneath it and be perfectly concealed without discomfort. The outward flare of the bottom of the mask was specifically so that the wearer could eat, drink, and talk without needing to remove it and reveal their identity. In a crowd of masks, “the carnival bauta was nearly uniform, and as such it erased the particular identity of the wearer; it effaced not only physiognomy but often class, gender, or even race” (Quinn 74). This made it one of the best choices for both men and women who wanted to celebrate Carnival without the burden of identity. This anonymity might erase the power held by those of the ruling class or high officials, but it also erased the inherent vulnerability of their power as well as created power for those who had none.

The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (8)
(Video) Why Were Masks So Popular in Medieval Venice?
The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (9)

A mask that was more traditional for women was the moretta, which was a small oval mask, dark in color and only wide enough to cover the center of the face. Instead of straps, the moretta was held in place with a button or bit that the wearer would keep between their teeth. Because this design rendered the wearer mute, another name for it was the muta or servetta muta.

The moretta mask fell out of fashion in the late 18th century, but before that it was an integral piece in a woman’s game of seduction during the festival. By covering just a small area in black velvet, a woman’s pale skin was thrown into sharp contrast and also turned her face into a treasure to be earned. This mask design has been immortalized in artwork such as Rosalba Carriera’s Portrait of a Woman with Mask (left) or Clara the Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi (below). Pietro Longhi painted a number of Carnival scenes, including Clara the Rhinoceros who was exhibited in 1751 as a Carnival spectacle.

The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks (10)

Traditional bauta masks are handcrafted from paper-mache and then decorated with filigree or paint as the artist sees fit. The moretta is covered in black velvet, for the aesthetic advantages of both the dark color and the soft, expensive material.

(Video) The stories behind Venetian carnival masks

Masks such as the bauta and the moretta were also favored by gamblers, because of their ability to render the wearer indistinguishable. In high-stakes environments, such as Venice’s most renowned gambling hall, the Ridotto, masks were part of a mandatory dress code for visitors. While this sometimes created a barrier for those who could not afford the correct costume, the casino was still open to anyone with enough money for a mask and a buy-in. This meant that anyone, of any social class or status, could end up standing next to each other to win and lose money all evening. Masks were required both by law and by the rule of the casino so that “if great gains or losses risked a sudden reversal in the social order, the mask could lessen its effects by concealing exactly who was winning and losing” (Johnson 408). Not only did they level the playing field by removing any threat of intimidation or retribution, but they also reduced class tensions and wounded pride.

Una McGowanARTH300: Fashion, Art, & PoliticsDr. Alla MyzelevSpring 2021


Carpenter, Sarah. “Women and Carnival Masking.” Records of Early English Drama 21, no.2 (1996): 9-16.

Johnson, James H. “Deceit and Sincerity in Early Modern Venice.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 38, no. 3 (2005): 399-415.

“Making the Masks: Handcrafting Venetian Masquerade Masks.” Italy Mask: Authentic Venetian Masks.

Quinn, Michael L. “The Comedy of Reference: The Semiotics of Commedia Figures in Eighteenth-Century Venice.”Theatre Journal43, no. 1 (1991): 70-92.

(Video) Here's the painstaking, 2-week process that goes into making masks for the Carnival of Venice

“The Bauta: The Queen of Venetian Masks.” Ca’ Macana,

“The Moretta mask: Venetian mask of seduction.” Ca’ Macana.


The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks? ›

The origin of Venetian masks dates back to the Middle Ages when people started to reunite and celebrate together dressing up with masks and flashy clothes. Gradually it became even more popular and institutionalized by the Republic of Venice, reaching its peak during the Carnival of Venice.

What is the origin of the Venetian carnival mask? ›

The origin of Venetian masks dates back to the Middle Ages when people started to reunite and celebrate together dressing up with masks and flashy clothes. Gradually it became even more popular and institutionalized by the Republic of Venice, reaching its peak during the Carnival of Venice.

What do the masks represent in Venetian Carnival? ›

The Venetian masks that are worn during the Carnival of Venice symbolize a number of different things. Some people believe that they represent freedom, while others believe they represent anonymity. They may also be seen as a way to escape from the reality of life for a short period of time.

What is the significance of the Venetian mask? ›

Venetian masks were traditionally worn to protect the identity of the wearer and were eventually worn during the Venetian Carnival. The masks are divided into two categories: Commedia dell' Arte masks and Carnival masks.

What is the history of the Venetian long nose mask? ›

The plague ravaged Venice many times, and this beaked mask was used as a sanitary precaution by actual doctors. The long nose would hold herbs and flowers that would filter the air and cover up the horrible smells of plague victims.

What is the origin of theater masks? ›

The tradition of theatre masks goes back to the ancient Greeks, who used masks both for practical needs and dramatic heft. Masks are used in commedia dell'arte, Japanese theatre and have a long history in African culture as well. They can be beautiful or grotesque, but they are always evocative.

What are the cultural masks from Venice? ›

Venetian masks are a centuries-old tradition of Venice, Italy. The masks are typically worn during the Carnival (Carnival of Venice), but have been used on many other occasions in the past, usually as a device for hiding the wearer's identity and social status.

What are the two main types of mask worn at the Carnival of Venice? ›

The most important types of Venetian masks are:
  • The Bauta Mask: This mask is famous for the Venice Carnival because it is the most essential type of mask worn during the Carnival. ...
  • The Moretta Mask: This mask is a traditional Venetian mask.

What were theater masks for? ›

Masks had certain practical uses: their distinct features made characters recognisable at a distance; they made it easier for the three actors used in plays to play more than one part each; they enabled the all-male casts to play both men and women and some experts claim that the masks helped amplify the voice so that ...

Why were masks made and what did they represent? ›

Generally their purpose was to represent the features of the deceased, both to honour them and to establish a relationship through the mask with the spirit world. Sometimes they were used to force the spirit of the newly dead to depart for the spirit world.

What is the Venice Carnival mask called? ›

Volto (Larva)

The volto (Italian for face) or larva (meaning ghost in Latin) is the iconic modern Venetian mask: it is often made of stark white porcelain or thick plastic, though also frequently gilded and decorated, and is commonly worn with a tricorn and cloak.

What are the four types of Venetian masks? ›

Mask Types
2 more rows

What are the features of a Venetian mask? ›

Usually made of leather or porcelain, many Venetian masks provide wearers with exaggerated features—a long, pointy nose or a rounded brow, for instance—meant to portray particular character traits or emotions while protecting the wearer's identity.

What are the names of three traditional masks of Venice Carnival? ›

Fantasy masks are figments of the maskmaker's imagination, although they may be inspired by historical designs & the traditional Venetian masks such as the colombina, volto full face mask and its variant, the "plague doctor's" mask with its phallic beak.

What are the two masks that represent theatre? ›

In a historical sense, there are two names for each mask. The name Melpomene represents the tragedy mask or Muse of Tragedy and the name Thalia represents the comedy mask or Muse of Comedy.

When were theatre masks invented? ›

Nancy Jones: Masks have been used for over two thousand years in theatre. The Greeks used masks as expressions of character, but it's also thought that they may have helped with actors' voice amplification in the giant amphitheaters.

What are some of the rituals that correspond to the masks? ›

Ceremonies in which masks are worn include harvest celebrations, funerals, rites of passage, weddings, and coronations. In some societies, masks and masquerades are also used to settle disputes and communal conflicts.

What are Venice Carnival masks made of? ›

The masks were made mainly with the products present at the time, such as paper and glue (papier-mâché), earth and clay (ceramic/plaster), rags, fabric or pieces of animal skin (leather).

What is the most popular mask in the Carnival of Venice? ›

Baùta is one of the best known and most popular Venetian masks. It consists of a particular white mask called larva (the word Larva derives from the Latin, meaning 'ghost' or 'mask'); a tricorn hat is placed on top of it, and a dark coat, the tabarro, completes the outfit.

What is the most famous cultural mask? ›

1. Venetian Carnival Masks. Worn during Carnival in Venice, these world-famous masks date back to the 13th century. The origin of the masks is unknown, but some theories suggest that they were donned in rebellion to the rigid society of the times.

Where did Carnival costumes originate? ›

The Roots of Carnival

People from Africa were enslaved and sold through trade to the West Indies during the eighteenth century. They carried with them their traditions of song, dance and costume.

How do you wear a Venetian mask? ›

All masks come with ribbon ties. If you want to hide the ties then start by tying your hair up then place the mask on your face, put the ribbons over your ears and under your hairline. Tie in a bow and then drop your hair down over the bow. Men with a lot of hair can follow these same rules.

What is the history of the colombina Venetian mask? ›

Colombina was an early Commedia dell'arte actress in the 15th century whose vanity made her reluctant to camouflage her beauty behind a mask. The half-mask was designed to accommodate her.

What are the different types of theatre masks? ›

Full face, half mask, full head, eye masks, body masks.

What are the smiling and frowning masks called? ›

Comedy and tragedy masks, sometimes called "Sock and Buskin"

What are the masks in Italian theater? ›

Masks in Commedia dell'arte speak of the types of characters that each represents, saying that they are a type that is unchanged. Masks told the audience who the character was, their social class and type, and what they would or wouldn't do, and what their attitudes were.

Who created carnival masks? ›

The presence of these characters during Carnival is understood by many as an ancient reference to the contest between good and evil. This devilish mask shows the characteristic style of its maker, Leonardo Pagán.

When were people allowed to wear masks in the Venetian Carnival? ›

Venetians didn't wear masks all-year-round, however; there was a time-limit on when they could wear them. The law was that they could wear masks, and enjoy the anonymity they provided, between St Stephens's Day (December the 26th) and the end of the carnival, which was always midnight on Shrove Tuesday.

Where are Venetian carnival masks made? ›

Authentic venetian mask in papier mache. Handcrafted according to the original Venice carnival tradition. Manufactured in Venice by the famous venetian masters.

Why are Venetian masks so expensive? ›

Most of the models are made of papier-mache and decorated with precious materials like gold leaves, feathers, or gems. Every single step of this fascinating work is entirely handmade, it can require from hours to weeks to be finished and it is 100% made in Italy guaranteed.

Who makes the best Venetian masks? ›

Ca'Macana has been making the best quality Venetian masks since 1984.

What is the history of the colombina venetian mask? ›

Colombina was an early Commedia dell'arte actress in the 15th century whose vanity made her reluctant to camouflage her beauty behind a mask. The half-mask was designed to accommodate her.

What does the Colombina mask represent? ›

The Colombina mask is based on the character of Colombina in the commedia dell'arte, a well-known and well-loved young female character who was often a maid or spouse in plays. Despite deriving directly from the commedia dell'arte, the Colombina mask is a relatively modern invention.

What are the facts about Venetian masks? ›

  • 10 Facts about Venetian Masks – History, Traditions, and Meaning.
  • Masks Have Been Worn in Venice since the Middle Ages. ...
  • The Different Styles of Masks in Venice Have Different Origins and Purpose. ...
  • Famous Artists Have Depicted Venetian Masks in Celebrated Paintings and Frescoes. ...
  • Venetian Masks Continue to Evolve.
Sep 4, 2022

What were carnival masks made of? ›

Historically, carnival masks were made out of leather, porcelain, or the original glass technique. Modern masks in Venice tend to be made of gesso and gold leaf and incorporate natural feathers and gemstones into their designs.

How old are Venetian masks? ›

The Role of Masks in Everyday Life

The first law regulating the use of masks dates back to the 13 century, but nobody knows when the Venetians actually started wearing them as a part of every day life.


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