Did you know that in Venice in 1600 masks were used throughout the year?


The Carnival of Venice is renowned for its appeal, excitement and mystery that continues to hold fascination, even now that 900 years have passed from the first document that refers to this famous festival.

Venice - Masks

We have details of the Carnival festivities dating as far back as 1094, under Vitale Falier, the 32nd Doge of the city.There is a document that details public entertainment which took place in the city in the days before Lent.There is also an official document declaring the Carnival as a public holiday on the last day of Lent in 1296. During the eighteenth century, people in Venice would go incognito with the use of masks for fun and as a part of daily life.

At the time, the masks in Venice were used throughout the year. This began officially on Boxing Day, on the 26th of December, was interrupted for Lent, and then began again. As a result of this, in the old Republic the Carnival seemed to last all year, or at least so it appeared to visitors.

In the “calle”, in the fields, and on bridges, visitors would encounter people in masks and often greet them with a cheerful “Good morning, Mrs. Mask”. For many foreign visitors, the practise would have made Venice seem like an exotic paradise.

The Venetian fashion of wearing masks gave people the freedom to overcome the boundaries of class, sex and social differences. When ordinary people wore the traditional carnival costumes, they were on exactly the same level as the wealthy patricians.

Venice - Carnival
Rich and poor celebrated together in the city, and the astute Senate, which recognized this as a perfect outlet for all the social unrest, decreed that no one who was wearing a mask was inferior to another. Masks were permitted almost everywhere, prohibited only in churches and places of worship.

In casinos people would use masks to conceal their identity, to remain incognito and continue to play even though they had previous debts. Many casinos employed “The Pittime”, who had the task of seeking out the people in debt, trying to recognize them even though they had their masks. They would come up behind them and whisper in their ear: “remember that you owe 500 Ducati to that man and 300 to that other person !”

Gambling was a favourite activity in Venice. In 1500, the “Council of 10” forbade it except during Carnival, but in 1638, in an effort to boost state revenue, the government of Venice decided to build a gambling house named “Il ridotto” where patrons were masked except for the “croupiers” who were the fallen nobility. Higher bets where placed in a separate room named ”Saletta dei sospiri”.

After losing a lot of money, people woul leave from a side door, where a gondola was always waiting. Giacomo Casanova, the famous Venetian lover and keen gambler, was accused many times of cheating in the casinos and was forced twice to move away from Venice. He was imprisoned for gambling debts, but made a daring escape over the rooftops that has become legendary.

Protected by the mask, women also felt free to organize their secret meetings, free from the constraints of their gender. The maske gave them a chance to escape from everyday life and invent a new personality, allowing them to act with total freedom.

Napoleon was the first to prohibit the wearing of masks throughout the year at the time when Venice became Austrian territory. They were still allowed during the Carnival period, which lasted for four or five months a year. With the fall of the Republic, the use of the mask had a sharp decline, until it finally diseappeared from the streets of Venice completely.

In 1979, a group of young Venetian theatre and culture lovers decided to revive the ancient Carnival. Now visitors flock to Venice the last weekend before the start of Lent to experience the celebrations, with more than 500,000 attending each year. People can once more enjoy disguising themselves, creating new identities and blurring the lines between reality and illusion and between past and present.
Venice - Carnival Painting


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