Much of the history of the Carnival of Venice is shrouded in mystery and legend. But there is enough fact and actual history for us to go on – and the story it tells is more intriguing than anything fiction could ever produce.
It is theorized that the carnival Venice, Italy celebrates today actually began as a celebration of a military victory for the Venetian Republic over the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico di Treven, in 1162.
Then as now, revelers gathered in San Marco Square.
While immediately associated with Venice, the carnival has faced periods where it was banned or suspended even though it has always had a reputation for providing the city with a substantial income from tourists.
This was because the carnival period was often associated with looser social rules, most evident in the suspension of sumptuary laws. Meant to regulate how people dressed, among other things, these laws put up strict boundaries between the classes.
This mingling of different people from all kinds of social backgrounds led to the mask being deployed as a means of anonymity, allowing the wearer to enjoy carnival without having to fear being recognized while out in public.
Associated today with parties, reveling, and good times, masks actually served a myriad of functions during the Venetian Republic, not the least among which was as a way to disguise one’s identity in order to blur class lines.
But as time passed, even the masks themselves assumed a kind of rigid class structure with the bauta being the preserve of the elite and aristocracy. It is often worn with either a red or black cape and a tricorn hat. Because of its exaggerated features, the bauta is often associated with male revelers though there are more than a few examples in art of women wearing the bauta as well.
Covering the entire face, this mask is almost as iconic as the plague doctor mask popularly associated with the carnival.
Another variant, the Colombina (covering the eyes and middle of the face), is actually an entirely modern iteration of the mask as no artwork from the period attests to its use though it is often associated with carnival today.
A major tourist attraction during the Republic and now, the Carnival of Venice attracts some 3 million visitors a year to the city and provides its craftsman and artisans with a substantial income in the trade of masks and assorted carnival accessories.