The Chaotic History of Venice Carnival Masks and Costumes

Much of Venice was sprinkled with confetti this week-end, as the Carnival celebrations began to get into their full (and silent) swing, and vaguely lost romantic couples were greeted here and there by fully costumed figures nodding gently with veiled and masked heads. The magnetic, mysteriously melancholic and somewhat outdated Venetian masks that are usually banished behind shop windows seemed to come to life for a short spell of three days only, and the doctor masks and jesters, the grim reapers, Harlequins and Columbines suddenly all were gleefully floating through old-fashioned cafés and town squares in elaborate period costumes, appearing as musketeers and courtesans, as fantasy clowns and fairies. That on Mardi Gras, the centrepiece of the festival, it turned out to be acqua alta and Saint Mark’s Square was covered knee-deep in water seemed to disturb no-one. Photographers, dressed-up revelers and visitors alike slipped on impromptu plastic bag Wellingtons or simply went barefoot. In fact, the water added extra scenic effects to the dramatic appearances of costumes that often boasted gilded masks and robes, tall wigs, wide capes, high shoes, voluminous tulle collars, lace cuffs, dark-and-light feathers and gems all around the head and all manner of jewelry, walking canes and strange and magical, old-worldly accessories to match.

As such, the Venetian Carnival is a modern invention born from the desire to revive some of Venice’s old and forgotten traditions and quirky customs. It would seem that records of the city can recall carnival celebrations being held as far back as the 12th century – as an outburst of joy and dance that the Venetian Republic had been freed from domination. The wearing of masks during the festivities and for all kinds of other occasions seems to have become de rigueur very soon, and laws regulating the use of masks followed suit. A history of mask and masked ball prohibitions in Venice (to prevent individuals from using masks to conceal their identity when engaging in illegal activities or acts of dubious morals, for instance) led to the carnival festival becoming more and more mythologized and cultivated with special care, in private and in secret.
There are a few recurrent costumes and masks which lend the Venetian Carnival its distinctive and recognizable charm, such as the “Jolly Joker”, “Dottore” and “Bautta”; however, the history of each mask is different and historically, these masks would never have been seen together at the same time.
Inextricably tied up with Venice’s history as a Republic and as an independent city-state is the Bautta mask, which had to be worn by men during certain political gatherings as an anonymizing measure to help the functioning of Venice’s direct, secret democracy.
The Doctor mask, with its long and beak-like nose, on the other hand, has a completely different history. It is said to have been first invented in France during the time of the bubonic plague, by Charles de l’Orme, a doctor who hoped that wearing a mask covering his nose and mouth would protect him from contaminating himself with the Black Death. The round openings for the eyes were sealed with thin glass, for protection against infection, simultaneously creating an erudite and bespectacled effect. The final touch to this doctor’s pre-modern set of precautions was to wear a coat of waxed garments, and leather leggings and gloves during times of contact with plague patients. This outfit caught on and gained wide use amongst pest doctors of the time, and was further developed in a variety of ways – for instance, the mask’s long beak was to be filled with scented herbs and perfumes, so that the doctor would not smell the foul smells of disease, as these were believed to be the cause of contamination, at the time.
It comes as not too great a surprise, perhaps, that this doctor’s outfit struck some people as bizarre and even buffoonish, and found itself to be amalgamated with the comedy masks and costumes of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. This was a culture of traveling comedy actors, who would improvise farcial and satirical performances outdoors, based on a number of stock characters, one of which came to be the Pompous Doctor.
Probably best remembered today through his later adaptation by the French playwright Molière in Le Malade Imaginaire, the Commedia Doctor was characteristically boastful of his vast knowledge of obscure and useless things as well as babbling in dead languages, and the character would be recognizable to the audience by the distinctive mask and costume. Today, in Venice, the mask appears again, in new incarnations: a part buffoon, as the self-assured doctor who most of all loves the sound of his own voice and appears in an ever so slightly indulgent and decadent costume with white collars and cuffs; and a part sinister, as the bird-like messenger of death, wearing a long hooded cloak like the grim reaper, a long staff in his hand.
Another popular mask in the Venice Carnival, the “Jolly” as it is called, takes its origins in 19th century USA. A mixture of the classic Pierrot with his pale and melancholic face, and the Joker as we know him from playing cards (believed to have been introduced to a pack of cards for the first time in 1860s USA), this mask is a modern fantasy persona that is part German court jester, part Joker card come to life, and a little bit Pierrot. In Venice, one can see him bouncing around brandishing mirrors and bells like the old German court jesters, or indeed a pack of cards or dice, as he is broadly thought to impersonate the different facets of chance, games, craziness, the inverted world, the unpredictability and all the bitter-sweet ephemera of life.
And on this ephemeral note, the Carnival magic seems to have vanished like a dream, now that it is Ash Wednesday and the Lent begins.