Since the sixteenth century, masked ‘types’ have acquired a complex set of symbologies and cultural behaviors in Venice, becoming a fundamental part of the image of the city and another symbol by which it is recognised (just like the gondola or winged lion). Their current use has turned them, instead, into various ‘costumes’.
A centre for the production of masks since the Middle Age, and home to private collections of this kind of item (evidently prematurely freed from their theatrical functions to become carnivalesque and assume a singular aesthetic value), masks in Venice have acquired a complex set of symbologies and cultural behaviors since the sixteenth century, becoming a fundamental part of the image of the city and a symbol of its recognition (just like the gondola or winged lion). It is therefore worthwhile overcoming the initial repulsion against this subject (due to its overuse in the promotion and publicization of Venice) so that it can be observed with greater attention, recognising its problematic sides and unshakability from clichés.
The original Venetian mask is the Bautta — its abstract form has constituted the traditional base onto which new forms of the mask have been designed in recent years, which are decorated to achieve an effect through the use of poor but luminescent materials, as well as the combination of heterogeneous elements built around a strictly neutral face.
These masks (which are now the most photographed during the Carnival and provide the most attractive business card for the city) have an absolute absence of characterization and fail to identify a mimetic function and identification which makes the true mask the subject of a tradition. This means that they can no longer be considered true masks, but rather costumes. The personality of the mask certainly fades behind the exciting experience of ‘abstractly’ wearing a mask, and another that interacts with a specific set of meanings is not resurrected in its place. Meanwhile, the anonymity and the disguise guaranteed by the costume elevates the transgressive and sexual functions connected to the ambiguity of the mask.
Learn more about the individual masks in the Masks and Faces section.