Floating City

George Cohen

Masking in Venice from the 14th century on played an intricate role in the lives of Venetian people. Masks were worn not just during carnival, but also for about 6 months during the year. Masks were not just something to hide someone’s face or identity, for venetians it was something that could become their identity. I attempted to wear masks like the Venetians, and I felt awkward and unsure, and I questioned everything I was doing in each mask.

Beaked Venetian Mask (Photo 1)

Example of a mask that was worn in Venice and similar to one that I wore in class on Feb 11, 2015.

The first mask I tried on was a black mask, bejeweled around the edges. It was small and only covered my eyes, but it had a black flower at one end. It seemed to be a mask for a female of “royal” or high class. Attempting to move and act in a mask like this was very difficult for me. It was obvious to those around me that by my walk, the way I composed myself, and the way I used my voice, no matter how hard I tried, nobody would be convinced that I was a princess. My second mask was more of a playful mask, and it was a more masculine mask. It was easier for me to portray the role of this second mask because the mask was a little outlandish and would, be in my mind, a “jokesters” mask. These qualities are similar to who I actually am, and allowed me to play my role more convincingly. This idea goes against masking as creating a “world turned upside down”, where I actually am in the mask partly who I am without the mask.

Some Venetians, such as Casanova, were able to use masks to their advantage, and turn themselves from not so important or wealthy people, into influential and powerful people. Casanova was able to use his mask to attain money and fame, creating and becoming a new person using his mask. If I had to do that I would need a lot of practice first. It is not easy to drop all that you are, especially if you are proud of aspects about yourself, to become someone else.

            In class we each got labeled as a person of a certain class, and were told to mingle with each other. People tended to then go and mingle and associate with those of similar classes, and were avoided by those above and below their class. People of the lower class were disrespected by those of the upper class, and people of the lower class made way for people of the higher class. It seemed to be this way back in Venice as well, except the atmosphere was more serious in Venice. The offense of mingling with people outside of your class had large repercussions, whereas if we did so in our experiment, nothing bad comparatively would really happen. To mingle between classes, especially between genders was serious and strictly looked down upon. It was looked down upon so that the upper class would remain in the upper class, and the lower class would remain in the lower class.

Black and Silver Venetian Pirate Mask (photo 2)

Pirate mask worn in class on Feb 11, 2015. Example of mask used in Venice during carnival most likely, possible at other times as well.

When putting on a mask, it feels as though people have an obligation to act different, because they look different and they have a new role to play. Partly it could be because people are naturally curious to find out what it would be like to act like someone else for a little while. This could imply a cross-cultural, worldwide appeal to masks. Masking is interesting because even though people may feel less like themselves, masking can bring out aspects about ourselves that we would not have realized if we had not put the mask on. For example, I learned that I have a very specific walk that was hard for me to change when in character no matter what I did. I have learned that what we look like, not necessarily attractive or unattractive, but how we dress, carry ourselves, and speak determine a lot about our identity. This shows that physical appearances do matter. Some masks cover people’s entire faces, and this can be intimidating and a little scary such as the pirate mask. Imagine if you could not read anybody’s emotions in a huge crowd of people. Naturally, people would be a little tentative and nervous about the people around them. Masks that cover half the face aren’t as intimidating but it still provides uncertainty for the person viewing the person in the mask. The mask tends to hide emotion, which is normally displayed by the face, thus making it difficult to discern a person’s mood, thus making conversations tricky, for lack of finding the right things to say in certain situations.

Masks are a complicated idea and aspect of Venetian society as I have read about and now experienced firsthand. They can be both a solution, and a problem. To wear a mask is almost like a responsibility. You need to be able to play the role effectively and correctly for it to work, and it is not easy. People need to drop their own characteristics and pick up those of the mask. It requires a lot of practice and a decent amount of skill. Masks are not only an identity of Venice, but also a cultural ritual.

George Cohen