13 February 2019

History of Carnival in Venice: its origin and the meaning of masks

The symbol of Carnival is the mask, which marked the history of the Venice.

The masks production is handmade using papier-mâiché, and it is an art brought forward by only three mascarers left in town today.

Buongiorno Siora Maschera”, along canals this was the greeting during Carnival, a typical catholic feast, which originally began on the 26th of December, until the day of Ash (this year on the 6th of March), a period during which Venetians used to wear masks and custumes, celebrating in the streets. The personal identity, sex, social class, did not existed anymore in this time lapse, until shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, that is 40 days before Easter, when Lent starts, and when a banquet with meat used to take place, in order to get ready for the fasting period immediately following, and ending on Easter day. Carnival represented a moment where you could set free from the strict social rules imposed by Serenissima Republic of Venice, a period during which everything could happen, in total freedom and trasgression. A particular witness of Carnival gets back to 1268, where a document complains of the improper use of the mask, forbidding zanies to cover their faces during the game of the eggs, which consisted of throwing eggs filled with rose water against ladies walking in the streets. The essence of Carnival is the ideal feast to loosen up yourself unfettered… the number of sins committed during those days (especially, impure, sexual, orgiastic) is remarkable. Countless saints during those days used to have strong remedial penance, they observed fasting, and more than one fighted to have Carnival abolished.

Masks divides into historical Venetian ones, those from the art comedia, and fantasy. The most famous are Bauta, Moreta, Gnaga, Plague doctor. Those related to art comedia are Arlequin, Zanni, Colombina.

The mascarers who still make masks in a very authentic way in Venice are: La Bottega dei Mascareri (which made the Eyes Wide Shut movie masks!), Ca’Macana, and Laboratorio di Giorgio Galasso (here you can book a painting experience on Airbnb).


Both for men and women, it is a costume made of a black mantle (tabarro), black cocked hat, and white mask open below to allow drinking and eating.


Oval mask made of black velvet and used by women, it was kept adherent over the face without the use of strings, but biting a button which was inside, exactly at the height of the mouth. The lady, when wanted to wear this mask, had to stay completely mute.


Used by men to impersonate female figures, according to the tradition, the Gnaga custume was made of typical female clothes, and a mask with cat features. During Carnival celebrations then this mask could have been made richer adding a basket under the arm (which used to contain a little cat).


Plague Doctor

The famous mask with beak was wore by doctors during the big plague that spread in Venice in 1630. Doctors used it to protect themselves, and also had glasses, mantle, and a stick used to uncover the patient. The beak was filled with scented substances (dried flowers, thyme, lavender, amber, myrrh, mint leaves, camphor, cloves, garlic, and almost always sponges soaked with vinegar.

Soon we’ll release a video with what happened during our Carnival workshop this 10th of February.