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Venetian masks have been a topic of fascination and intrigue for centuries. Although many cultures are still using them, there's no other type of mask to conjure conspiracy and mystery just like an opulent Venetian masquerade mask. What makes the origin of this mask so hazy? For starters, there no references to indicate the mask's originally usage. The very first mentioning of masking one's face dates back to 1268, when the law forbade people to wear masks while performing certain activities.

 

venetian masks 

Masquerade masks at carnivals

Rumor has it that the masquerade mask originated at the Carnival of Venice, in 1162. This celebration began from a victory of Republica Serenissima against Ulrico di Treven, Patriarch of Aquileia. To honor the victory, people started to reunite in the San Marco Square; they were dancing and having a good time. Apparently, this amateurish street fair soon became an official event of the Renaissance period. In the 17th century, the name of this masked fair was changed to the "baroque carnival". It was a smart way to save Venice's image in front of the world.

The baroque carnival encouraged people of all ranks to wear masks and engage in all kinds of activities that involved drinking alcohol and romantic encounters. It was also a means to protect the people from social repercussions. Unfortunately, the Carnival of Venice and its masks were completed outlawed in 1797, by the King of Austria, who forbade people to wear masquerade masks.

The carnival returned in the 20th century, in 1979. It was the Italian government who took this decision because they thought that Venice's history and culture depended by the use of traditional carnival items - the beautiful, opulent masks and the costumes. In today's modern society, over 3 million people to Venice each year to attend, or at least to admire the carnival. The celebration's main event is the "most beautiful mask" contest. Judged by an international panel of fashion and costume designers, tourists will be amazed by the variety of masks presented on this competition.

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The controversy

When the King of Austria outlawed the carnival and everything that came with it, the people of Venice started a riot. They rebelled against the outrageous laws and they gave a whole new meaning to the word "mask". Venetians changed it from being a clever disguise from society officials to objects of intrigue, rebellion, and darkness used mainly to describe the underworld. Many still associate masks with a defiant attitude.

There's hardly any proof explaining why people started to wear masks in Venice. Apparently, hiding your face in public was more like a Venetian habit to some of the most unyielding hierarchies. A document that mentions the use of masquerade masks in Venice dates back to the 13th century, and it highlights that masked people were not permitted to gamble. In 1339, another documents mentioned that Venetians couldn't wear vulgar disguises and masks while visiting religious convents.

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Masquerade masks in theatres

 

Masks were not just meant to be worn at carnivals and celebrations. They were highly praised for their artistic allure, and thus used frequently in theatres. Each mask had a specific purpose and only certain characters were allowed to wear them. Zanni, Arlecchino, Pantalone, and Medico della Peste were just some masquerade masks that originated from the Venetian theater.  The mascherari (mask-makers) became a highly-esteemed job. These people were artists with a fine eye for details. Hand-crafting a masquerade mask is an extremely meticulous endeavor, and only the most skilled and talented people can do it.

 

In spite of a rather hazy origin, Venetian masks are still admired and appreciated today. Some of them are genuine works of art attentively crafted and meticulously adorned with feathers and glittery accents. Nowadays, one of the most common type of themed party is the carnival. At formal parties and black tie events, people wear exquisite masks meant to highlight their features and beautify their costumes. During public events like Mardi Gras and Halloween, people can afford to be more playful. They wear funny costumes and they make their own masks.

 

As you can see, the purpose of the Venetian mask has changed a lot over the centuries. Nowadays, millions still attend the Carnival of Venice because it's the city's signature celebration worth admiring for its grandeur and extravagance.