Masking is a significant part of Venetian culture, especially in a historical context where its role is substantially more prominent than it is in modern day. While masking took place in multiple events and aspects of Venetian culture it is most commonly associated with Carnival. This annual festival is held during the two weeks that lead up to Lent. Carnival has undergone many changes since its inception in the eleventh century such as the elimination of people using “a naked sword” to “cut off [a] pig’s head” and more of a focus on the theatrical and festive side of the holiday (Burke 184). After gaining more knowledge on this topic through reading and primarily in-class discussions I had the chance to get a somewhat firsthand experience with Venetian masking.
Unfortunately I did not have the pleasure or luxury of attending Carnival in Venice. I did, however, get to attain a sense of what this masking is like to a limited degree. Professor Leah Roy lead our class through a workshop in which we were able to select and wear Venetian masks much like those one might use during the legitimate Carnival that takes place in Venice. Not only were we instructed to wear the mask of our choice, but we were urged to take it a step further. The goal was to become one with the mask and let it be personified in a way that influenced the way that we acted as individuals. This goal was set in place with the intent to create an environment that is similar to the way that Venetians act when they themselves are masked. Mask wearers in Venice go to great lengths to not only conceal their true identities but to behave with no inhibitions in ways that are related to their masks. It was not uncommon to find “a gentleman as a baker” or to see a “countess turn herself into a peasant” during the Carnival celebration (Burke 186). While wearing different masks I got a sense of how the concealment of one’s face can influence their attitude and outward social interactions. This feeling can be described as a relative degree of freedom to behave shamelessly in whatever way felt appropriate at the time. I especially got this feeling while wearing the guise of a full face mask, mostly due to the fact that my facial expressions could be seen or read, which was liberating.
Understandably, differences arose between the experience I had in the dance studio and the experience I might have if I were to take part in the actual Carnival festival. First off, during Carnival there is more mystery as to who is behind each mask. This is due to the fact that the disguises are much more elaborate and include costumes to supplement the mask, plus there are thousands and thousands of people present. Not only were we not wearing costumes but we were all fully aware of who was behind each mask given that we saw what everybody was dressed in prior to being masked. While I do not believe that this completely ruins the experience by any means, I believe that it impedes the feeling of shameless liberation that Venetians feel during Carnival. This liberation provides relief to the pressure Venetians feel in everyday life having grown up in a rigid social hierarchy that makes up their society. Venice in the 18th century, unlike our modern society, was a very class-based society with strict social rules and customs. For someone who is so used to constantly following these social norms the opportunity to become anonymous and behave as one wishes during Carnival is understandably appealing. Another stark observation that I picked up on was that everybody, including myself, felt somewhat awkward walking around in masks and did not find it easy to let themselves go and behave freely in a way that modeled the mask that they had on. This can be attributed to the fact that the idea of masking, aside from Halloween, is more or less completely foreign to all of us. Venetians are raised in a culture that places a lot of focus on masking and it comes rather naturally to them. It is a fair assessment to say that masking goes beyond the physical property of a mask and delves into the deeper ties that masking has within the culture of Venetian life.
To be able to try out masking first hand was an enlightening experience in that I got to get a feel for an ancient practice I’ve heard so much about but have never gotten to be a part of. My experience, coupled with the knowledge I have gotten through reading and discussions, allowed me to effectively analyze and compare and contrast multiple facets of the art of masking within the Venetian culture.
Burke, Peter. "The Carnival of Venice." The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy. New York: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.
"History of the Venice Carnival." Venice Carnival 2015. Venice Events, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2015. <http://www.venice-carnival-italy.com/history-of-venice-carnival.php>.