The Use of Masks
Text: Garry Benson
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One of my favourite places is Venice where my friends Francesco and Sarah Aidone own the Dalla Mora hotel, a cozy little gem in the Santa Croce neighborhood, situated in a building that’s been standing since the 1500s. Brothers Francesco and Alessandro have run the place with care since 1980.
And though they live on The Lido, at Carnevale time it’s all go. As an artist the masks of Carnevale are an inspiration, as a drama director it’s a rare glimpse of the world of Italy’s travelling acting troupe, the Commedia dell’arte.
One of the courses in my Drama Direction course I did at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London) was Masks and their use in drama, from the early Greek tragedies to today’s Balinese masks…
The Carnival of Venice (Italian: Carnevale di Venezia) is an annual festival, held in Venice, Italy. The Carnival ends with the Christian celebration of Lent, forty days before Easter on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. The festival is famed for its elaborate masks.
Venetian masks are a centuries-old tradition of Venice, Italy. The masks are typically worn during Carnevale, but have been used on many other occasions in the past, usually as a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status.
The mask would let the wearer to act more freely in cases where he or she wanted to interact with other members of the society outside the bounds of identity and everyday convention. It was useful for a variety of purposes, some of them illicit or criminal, others just personal, such as romantic encounters.
Venetian masks are characterised by their ornate design, featuring bright colours such as gold or silver and the use of complex decorations in the baroque style. Many designs of Venetian masks stem from Commedia dell’arte. They can be full-face masks (e.g. the bauta) or eye masks (e.g. the Columbina).
Near the end of the Republic, the wearing of masks in daily life was severely restricted. By the 18th century, it was limited only to about three months from December 26. The masks were traditionally worn with decorative beads matching in colour.
Types of masks
Bauta (sometimes referred as baùtta) is a mask which covers the whole face, this was a traditional piece of art, with a stubborn chin line, no mouth, and lots of gilding. The mask has a square jaw line often pointed and tilted upwards to enable the wearer to talk, eat and drink easily without having to remove the mask thereby preserving their anonymity. The Bauta was often accompanied by a red cape and a tricorn.
In 18th century, the Bauta had become a standardized society mask and disguise regulated by the Venetian government.[ It was obligatory to wear it at certain political decision-making events when all citizens were required to act anonymously as peers.
Only citizens had the right to use the Bauta. Its role was similar to the anonymizing processes invented to guarantee general, direct, free, equal and secret ballots in modern democracies. It was not allowed to wear weapons along with the mask, and police had the right to enforce
Decline of Venetian Carnival
By the eighteenth century the wearing of masks by Venetians continued for six months of the year as the original religious association and significance with carnevale diminished. On October 17th, 1797 (26 Vendémiaire, Year VI of the French Republic) Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio. The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798 and it fell into a decline which also effectively brought carnival celebrations to a halt for many years.
Today Venice’s Carnavale is a tourist mecca. After a long absence, the Carnival returned to operate in 1979. The Italian government decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice, and sought to use the traditional Carnival as the centerpiece of its efforts.
The redevelopment of the masks began as the pursuit of some Venetian college students for the tourist trade. Today, about 3 million visitors come to Venice every year for Carnevale. One of the most important events is the contest for la maschera più bella (‘the most beautiful mask’) placed at the last weekend of the Carnival and judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers.
The other dominant art form of masks is the Japanese Noh. It’s also an acting tradition that uses masks, and there were originally about 60 basic types of noh masks. Covering the face with a mask is much like wearing makeup. However, noh performers feel that the noh mask has a certain power inherent in it which makes it much more spiritual than a prop used to change ones appearance.