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Venice is famous for its elaborated and beautiful masks, but the history of masks and masquerade balls in Europe stretches back even further than that. Here is a brief history of how these decorative masks came to be.

 

Masquerade balls began in the 1300s in Europe, as part of the carnival season. Members of high society had their grand balls, while villagers also had their own pageants and processions. Everyone gathered wearing costumes and masks, and events sometimes often tended towards wild celebrations.

 

These balls became extremely popular in France, and some of the most notable balls were held for Royal Entries, when kings and queens were welcomed into a city with a grand celebration. A famous masquerade ball was held by French king Charles VI in 1393. Called the "Bal des Ardents," which translates to "Burning Men's Ball," this event added a splash of danger to the usual costume ball.

 

The event was a celebration honoring the marriage of the queen's lady in waiting. The king and five of his noblemen dressed up in costumes made of flax, and spent the evening portraying wild men from the woods, with appropriate masks. The danger came with the flaming torches that surrounded the floor where they danced the night away. Venturing too close to one of these could quickly set the costumes alight.

Masquerade masks in the 1500s

 

In the Italian Renaissance during the 1500s, masquerade balls became popular in Italy. Members of the Venetian aristocracy happily adopted the tradition. They took full advantage of the anonymity that the masks offered, when pursuing a wild night that could otherwise lead to scandal. The Venetian Carnival became a decadent affair, a lavish celebration where participants engaged in lusty behavior outside the normal rules.

 

Masks in Venice were also worn outside the Carnival season. Some citizens were known to wear masks during nine different months throughout the year. Some experts theorize that this gave them a way to escape from the rigid rules and class structures that controlled the actions of society members in Venice. Other scholars say this gave Venetians the advantage of anonymity so that they could indulge in certain activities, without suffering the repercussions from society and the church that they would otherwise face.

Multiple purposes of Venetian masks

Certain masks were designed with special meaning and purpose. There was one type of full face mask which was worn when voting, so that members of the ruling body could cast their votes anonymously, thereby expressing their wishes more freely than they could otherwise. Another type of mask, which was white with a long beak, was designed for plague doctors. It was supposed to help them avoid catching and spreading the dreaded Black Death.

 

”Medico dellaPeste” became a revolutionary costume in the 17th century. It was worn by men at all sorts of masked parties, bashes and gatherings and it was certainly striking. It came with a black ankle-length overcoat and a mask like looked like a bird. During the 17th and 18th centuries, masks started to have a deeper purpose. They were meant to combat people’s social behavior, and thus used widely by those who were not of aristocratic descent. Wearing a masquerade mask meant you didn’t have an identity; nobody would recognize you so you could have entered the most lavishing party without being judged.

The rise and fall of the masquerade mask

During the 18th century, the law in Venice began cracking down on the wearing of masks. They were prohibited except for special events and occasions. Many people did not like the new rules, and continued to wear masks, except that now they had to move out of the mainstream. Masks became associated with intrigue, rebellion, and the underworld. These are connotations they still carry today.

 

The world is still fond of the masquerade ball, which is often linked to the Venetian carnival. Many of today’s themed parties are centered on wearing costumes, vintage dresses and masks. The history of the traditional Venetian masks is outstanding, and it will forever remain in our hearts. In honor of the good old days, when in Venice stop by the flea markets and buy yourself a decorative mask. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll wear it at a ball!