Photo Source: thestar.com/news/venice_for_the_birds
In our world today, 2020, we think of wearing masks – at least some of us do – as the “new normal.” Although we’re all hoping this phenomenon is temporary, wearing masks for a specific purpose is almost ingrained into our DNA. The oldest face mask in existence is deemed to be a stone mask from the pre-ceramic Neolithic period dating back to 7000 BC.
Image Credit: Gryffindor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Photo Source: commons.wikimedia.org/index.php7387782
Location: Catholic Institute, Bible Museum and Holy Land.
Human societies have donned masks for almost every motive possible, so wearing them for protection from a virus isn’t anything new as far as big ideas go.
FAST FORWARD TO MEDIEVAL VENICE
To the Venetians, masks have a special importance for two reasons. Of course, the best known is the famous Carnival of Venice. The lesser known reason is the way in which the Venetian royalty and aristocracy considered themselves -- very special, ultra elite, and way above everyone else in all respects.
The Carnival of Venice is a festival which most historians believe evolved from the Roman feast of Saturnalia. It was a mid- December event whose roots precede Christianity, a time of partying, gift giving, and role reversals when masters served their workers and commoners, and gave them gifts.
Whether or not any of the role reversal ideas in Saturnalia involved masks, I was unable to discover, but the Romans did have another event in the spring where cross dressing was part of the fun.
As happened often with pagan festivals, Christianity found a way to work the rather wild revelries into its liturgical year and overlay them with Christian ideas with the intent to restore a semblance of decency. The Roman celebrations of Saturnalia, Bacchanalia, and the Kalends of January gradually merged into what now call Carnival, a season which occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. Of course, there are historians and scholars who disagree with this theory of the origin of Carnival, but this seems to be the theory most subscribe to.
As Christianity spread through Europe, the hedonistic festivities of masquerading, dancing, and drinking were doused with a heavy dose of religion and subsumed as a prelude to the Lenten season. The first such Carnival celebration took place in Rome in between 1140 and 1143 and was attended by the Pope.
Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons
By Johannes Lingelbach - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12438133
The Republic of Venice was a seafaring nation and a significant financial and maritime power during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Their navy and fleet of merchant marines dominated.
Venice traded freely with the Byzantine Empire and the Muslin world, making Venice very wealthy, very quickly. Opulence became the standard of the day among the aristocratic families of Venice, and they constantly vied for status and power through visible lavishness, including public events, parties, and patronizing artists and artistic performances.
The Republic of Venice, Colonies, and Territories - 697 through 1797
Photo Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Venetian_Republic_evolution_en.png
From this senate came the election of the Council of Ten, a secretive and powerful group which held the key to the administration of the city. From this council a Doge was elected – the ceremonial head of the Republic.
AN ARISTOCRACY OBSESSED WITH EXCESSES
There is little hard evidence which explains why wearing masks began in Venice, but historians contend that covering the face in public was a uniquely Venetian response to a one of the most inflexible class hierarchies in European history. The reason is simple: anonymity.
Unlike most Europeans during the middle ages, all Venetians enjoyed a higher standard of living. Everyone was part of the economic machine and, after all, the city of Venice is small in land area. Masks served to keep every citizen on an equal playing field.
Remember, the Republic of Venice was founded in 697 and lasted until 1797. The city amassed wealth from trading early on and those in power had centuries to enjoy their privileged positions.
Photo Source: dailyartmagazine.com/venice-carnival
Behind closed doors, however, sexual promiscuity was commonplace and acceptable; so were gambling, political assassination, cutting of questionable “deals”, dancing, drinking, and attending elaborate parties all night. Wearing masks was a big part of the debauchery.
Important to note is the fact that Sumptuary Laws were suspended during carnival. A free for all.
By the 1200s, the influence of the Catholic Church had grown enough to limit the wearing of masks in Venice. Although the church entwined the custom of masks with Christian liturgy, Venetians could still go masked nearly six months out of the year…and they did.
The masquerade experienced the rise and fall of popularity, and was even outlawed by the church, particularly on holy days. This ultimately led to the Church declaring the months between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday (the day before the beginning on Lent) as free for mask wearing.
Napoleon conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797, leading to the City’s political, cultural, and economic decline. The new leader outlawed wearing Carnival costumes, including masks, except at private parties and one designated event, Ballo della Cavalchina. Quickly it ceased to exist, until revived in 1967 by the Italian government as a revival of Venice’s cultural heritage.
There is inconsistency among references about the dates when masks were and were not permitted or worn, and when the actual practice ceased to exist or didn’t stop.
Sumptuary Laws, which have existed in nearly every culture since ancient times, are intended to restrain luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures for apparel, food, furniture, etc. Historically, they were an attempt to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures, often depending on a person's social rank.
During the middle ages, sumptuary laws were enacted to keep the main population dressed according to their "station". Although they applied to everyone, the regulations targeted women and the middle classes. Their curbing of display was couched in religious and moralizing terms, yet was affected by social and economic considerations aimed at preventing ruinous expenses among the wealthy classes and the drain of capital reserves to foreign suppliers.
15th Century Courtesan Dress Venetian courtesan ca. 1589, engraving by Pietro BertelliPhoto Source: sumptuarylaw.blogspot.com/15th-century-italian https://lauramorelli.com/venetian-fashion-16th-century/
Despite their ancient origin, there is general agreement that sumptuary laws were difficult or impossible to enforce over the long term and did not change anything anyway.
BACK TO MASKS
The first documented use of masks in Venice goes back to the 13th century when the Great Council enacted laws against masked people throwing scented eggs. Who knew?
Pietro Bertelli: "Mascare usate in Venetia che Tirano Ovi odoriferi" - engraving (1642)
Photo Source: http://www.delpiano.com/carnival/html/eggs.html
In 1339 Venetians were forbidden to wear vulgar disguises and to visit convents while masked. The law also prohibited painting one's face, or wearing false beards or wigs.
There is evidence that in the 16th century 'commedia dell'arte' – performances (plays and theater productions) where actors wore masks – rejuvenated Venetian masks designs.
By the late 16th century the Venetian Carnival began to reach its peak and eventually lasted a whole season from January until Lent. By the 18th century, it was a tourist attraction, and mask wearing was restricted to three months. [This is an example of conflicting dates.]
James Johnson, a CAS associate professor of history, researched how masks were used by 18th-century Venetians. His take on the situation was that Venetians wore masks six months out of the year, from when the theater season started in the fall through Carnevale (Carnival). More important, his research shows the Venetians were not wearing masks to disguise themselves or for intrigue or corruption, as people visiting Venice at the time thought. It was a custom, a fashion statement. The fashion, he writes, is related to the absolutely hierarchal society.
“The etiquette was that when you came across a noble and you were a commoner, you had to do these formal, involved salutes. If you have masks on, you don’t have to go through that. That didn’t mean that people were disguised and that they didn’t know each other’s rank, but it’s a token anonymity that allows nobles and commoners to mingle in close quarter in theaters, cafes, and in the street without all this rigmarole. Masks encouraged people to talk who normally wouldn’t have because of their difference in rank. It started with nobles wearing masks to the theater so they could intermingle with commoners there.” http://www.bu.edu/articles/2012/unmasking-the-past/
During the Reformation, carnival customs began to die out in Protestant regions, although some survived in Catholic areas despite the opposition of the ecclesiastical authorities. Eventually they succumbed.
CARNIVAL OF VENICE TODAY
In the 21st century Carnivale and masks are thriving in Venice, Rio, New Orleans and elsewhere. No doubt the revelers and tourists taking part in Venice have little notion of the history of either the carnival or the significance of the masks. I would guess some may use masks to remain anonymous while they act like idiots, commit crimes, and otherwise engage in questionable activities.
http://www.vera-frisch.de/venice2.htm https://globalnews.ca/news/6586238/italy-venice-carnival-coronavirus/ venicehotelcadoro.com/venice-carnival
The Carnival for 2020 was cancelled due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The regional governor of Veneto said the COVID-19 outbreak was "absolutely [the] worst problem that Veneto has faced." In the past, Venetians wore masks because they wanted to. Now, they have to.
Photo source: businessinsider.com/coronavirus-covid-19