Disguising one’s identity with elaborately painted masks was a significant part of the late 13th Century. Venice was the birthplace of the masquerade and the masks played a central role in society. Beginning on the day of Santo Stefano and ending at midnight of Shrove Tuesday, citizens of Venice would dress in fanciful outfits and eloquent masks to join together in celebration. As masquerade masks became increasingly popular, the mask-makers soon took up their own space in society and became members of a guild.
This became a yearly festival of the city and a whole range of masquerades took place revolving around stories of love, marriage and triumph. The Venetian youth would dress in costumes and masks and entertain the upper classes during the Venetian Carnival. Masquerade balls and elegant dinners were all part of the entertainment. Jugglers, acrobats and traveling exhibits took over the piazza and performed for the public. The sense of the unknown and the disguised allowed for everyone to come together and put aside the social standards of the time. It was a way to rid the individual of his identity so that he can act as he wishes.
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The story of the masquerade mask and the festivities, however, is not as optimistic as it seems. The earliest record of the Carnival of Venice dates back to 1268 and reveals a sense of opposition towards it. The festival of masks was a way for both the lower and uppers classes to hide their identities in order to freely participate in self-indulgent activities and mingle with the general public. From romantic encounters to murderous crimes, the streets of Venice became subversive and uncontrollable.
Venetians lived in a repressive environment during the Medieval Era, when the wearing of masks began to hold ground. As a result, the Catholic Church went through great lengths to outlaw the masquerades by establishing laws and regulations. The Church failed in banning the processions and eventually accepted the celebrations. The Catholic Church allocated a certain time period for the celebrations in accordance with religious holidays.
The months between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday were dedicated to the masquerades and eventually paved way for Carnevale. Carnevale was associated with pre-Lent traditions and the cleansing of evil spirits.
Masquerade balls and the entire culture surrounding the wearing of masks expanded to other parts of Europe, including England. The masquerades were generally held for the nobility in other parts of the continent. They enjoyed games held during the masquerade balls where guests had the opportunity to reveal each others’ identities.
The masquerade and all its glory began to lose ground during the 18th century. Venice fell under the rule of the Austrians and the celebrations eventually came to an end. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the Carnival experienced a revival and people began to wear masquerade masks all over again. Since then, masquerade masks have become part of the artistic and craft-making culture of Italy as well as other countries. Aside from Venetian masks, there are also Mardi Gras and Harlequin masks. The masquerade mask is not only a historic and traditional part of culture but it is also a tourist attraction in modern times.