This Saturday marks the beginning of Carnevale, when Venice will throw off its winter shroud and transform from a quiet haven of secluded squares and echoing alleyways into a spectacular whirlwind of costumes, parties, pageantry and above all, masks.
Mask-wearing has been a social custom in Venice since the 13th century; the earliest record of masks being worn in the city can be found in a document dating from 1268, forbidding masked men from gambling and throwing perfumed eggs at women in the streets. Over the years mask-wearing became increasingly popular, until by the eighteenth century it had become customary for Venetians to wear masks for six months of the year. In certain circumstances they were obligatory; masks had to be worn by any married women visiting the theatre, and by citizens taking part in political decision-making events when anonymity was key.
Masks were worn by all levels of society, from noblemen to monks and courtesans; Casanova wrote in his memoirs about romantic liaisons with masked ladies as well as close encounters with masked police.
Concealing the wearer’s identity, they facilitated the mixing of social classes and fuelled an atmosphere of secrecy, intrigue and debauched hedonism; in 1458 the city’s council felt compelled to pass a law banning masked men from entering convents, and in 1703 masks were made illegal in casinos in an attempt to stop gamblers from dodging their creditors.
In 1797, when the Venetian Republic was conquered by the French and Napoleon banned the celebration of Carnevale altogether, the tradition of mask-wearing faded for many years until the festival was officially reinstated in the 1970s.
Today, the vast number of places selling masks in Venice can be overwhelming, and the choice is seemingly endless. However, the very best examples are to be found at Ca’ Macana, famous for having produced many of the masks featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Among Venice’s oldest mask-making workshops, its main showroom is situated on Calle delle Botteghe, one of the city’s most delightful streets still populated by a number of thriving artisan workshops.
Traditionally crafted from leather, glass or porcelain, today the majority of masks are made from papier-mâché. Shapes and styles vary wildly, from traditional characters such as the long-nosed Plague Doctor and colourful Harlequin, to more fantastical modern creations. Certain shops such as Ca’ Macana also offer mask-making workshops, allowing you to customise your own bespoke design and ensure you stand out from the Carnevale crowds. We look forward to sharing some photographs of our personal favourites from the 2017 festival over the next few weeks.
Carnevale di Venezia 2017 runs from 11th – 28th February: www.carnevale.venezia.it