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History of Venetian Masks

Venezia, Caffe Quadri by G. PongaHistory

In 1436, the masters of the Guild of Decorators in Venice re-organized the mask making industry by proposing a certain number of rules that were ratified by the Giustizieri Vecchi - the magistrates responsible for vigilance of the arts and crafts at the time.  This was when the Venetian profession of "maschereri" or "mascareri" (mask makers) was officially recognised with its own statutes.  Growing demand was attracting additional artisans to this profession and regulations were required!  A document, now in Correr Civic Museum in Venice, indicates that between 1530 and 1600 eleven craftsmen were registered in this guild as "mascherer" - even including a woman named Barbara Scharpetta.  They were joined in their art work by "targheri" - craftsmen who created new "faces".

The wearing of masks in theatres dates back as far as the ancient Greek festivals in honour of Dionysius, god of theatre.   When the Romans conquered Southern Europe, they adapted the Grecian love of theatre and the use of masks in plays and celebrations. The Venice Carnival, (or Carnevale) which dates back to the 15th century, is still famous today, attracting tourists from all around the world to the color and excitement of this ancient tradition.

The Role of Masks in Everyday Life

Il ridotto, Pietro LonghiThe Venice Carnival (Carnevale) began on the 26th December and ended on Shrove Tuesday.  It therefore lasted more than two months.  It was the most sumptuous and extravagant carnival in the world, but the incredible thing is that it made up only a part of the period in which mask wearing was permitted.

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.  What we do know, however, is that this all ended with the fall of the Venetian Republic, at the end of the 18th century.  Before that, the law allowed for masks to be worn for most of the year.  In the 18th century for example , from the 5th October to the 10th June - 8 months - apart from 10 days during Advent and the 40 days of Lent.  This does seem excessive at first, but can be explained.

Venice was an aristocratic republic with it's unique style of democracy effective only within the upper classes, while the ordinary people had no say in government. Despite this, the aristocracy was always loved and admired by the people.  Therefore, with the wealth, power and consensus they enjoyed, the aristocracy could impose its own lifestyle as a model for the whole of Venetian society.

La venditrice di essenze by Pietro LonghiHowever, the Venetian nobles were not fat, idle feudal land lords and they certainly did not live off the backs of the rest of the people.  They were merchants and adventurers, who risked their riches and sometimes their own lives on the ships which worked the Eastern trade routes.  They had to contend with pirates, storms, attacks by enemy warships and the people and customs from strange lands.  Adventure for them was a way of life.  They therefore created a city which offered all types of adventure, in every sense of the word!

The masks represented absence of rules and freedom of action.  You could do anything you liked with the anonymity of a mask and adventure was possible in Venice itself, among the offices of institutions, regardless of the laws and the vetoes of morality, however severe they may be!  So, over time, the Carnival broke the traditional boundaries and masks entered the realm of every day life.  In some places, they actually were compulsory by law!  For example, in the state casino, you could only play if you were wearing a mask!

After the fall of the Venetian Republic, mask making did go into a period of recession, but has enjoyed a renaissance since the 1970's and today when visiting Venice, there are masks on every street corner and they are purchased by tourists from all around the world. masks are all made in Venice using the ancient methods of mask making that have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries.  We have personally visited all our suppliers and seen their artisans at work in their workshops.  Click here to see our range of Traditional Masks that are the same ancient designs the artisans have been producing for centuries

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