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It’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Right now a small city in Italy has been transformed into a unique celebration that has been occurring for centuries. That’s right- it’s Carnival in Venice! We have all seen the photos of the spectacular costumes, always paired with mysterious and alluring masks. Those fortunate enough to have attended the event in person know just how jaw-dropping some of these elaborate costumes can be. The masks are iconic, many instantly recognizable as Venetian. So where did these fantastical looks come from?

To make a long story short, Carnival itself dates all the way back to 1162, and was originally a celebration of the victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia. By the Renaissance, the celebration was made an official annual event, held in the weeks leading up to Lent. Yet the masks date back much earlier in Venetian culture. Though there is no record of when or why masks first became popular in Venice, we do know that by the 13th Century they were already so common that laws were put in place to regulate their use. At this time, masks were an everyday sight, not just reserved for festivals. Masks allowed a person to break social barriers, behaving in ways they might not typically had their identity been known. The nobility was known to take advantage of the anonymity provided by masks to indulge in gambling, brothels, and other such sins. You can understand, then, why throughout the years more and more regulations were put in place over when and where masks were permitted. It is also the reason the raucous Carnival festival was banned from 1797 all the way through 1979.

Due to the freedom they allowed, it is unsurprising that masks became so prevalent In my opinion, it’s surprising that more cities didn’t follow suit! But what about the designs of the masks? Let’s take a look at a few of the most famous mask styles:

For men, the Bauta mask is perhaps the most common style of mask, and most distinctly Venetian. A normal fitted mask on top, it points away from the face on the lower half so that the wearer could eat and drink without removing it. This mask became incredibly popular during the 18th Century, which was also the era when masquerades inspired by Carnival reached peak popularity throughout much of Europe. This is why the bauta mask is still typically paired with 18th century style clothing today, almost always including a tricorn hat and cloak.

The most common between both genders is the Volto (aka larva) mask. This is the mask that covers the entire face, with only the eyes exposed. It is traditionally white, though often ornately decorated.

Another distinctive mask is the Medico della Peste mask, aka the plague doctor mask. This slightly creepy mask, with a dramatic beak, is unique among the masks due to the fact that it is based off of reality, rather than created out of frivolity. In other words, during the days of the plague, doctors actually wore masks that looked like this because they believed it would protect them from the deadly disease.

There are many other styles of masks, including the Gnana cat-like mask, and several based off of Commedia dell'Arte characters such as Pantalone and Arlecchino. I can’t cover them all, but I’ll leave you with one more mask which was all the rage for women in the early 18th Century, yet is almost never seen today. Known as the Moretta mask, this little black mask has a unique circular shaped that covered the face, but not the chin, top of the forehead, or other edges. What made it so infamous, though, was the fact that it traditionally had no strap, and instead was held in place by a little button on the back of the mask which a woman held in her mouth. As a result, a woman could not speak while wearing the moretta mask. It gave women an air of mystery, and in a way, a sense of power. Men would strive to persuade the moretta woman to answer their questions, therefore removing her mask and revealing her identity. Yet due to the extreme impracticality of this style, it is understandable why the moretta mask has not made a revival in modern times.

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Bridge of Sighs

The bridge connecting the palace of the Doge with the State prison in Venice. It was so called because the prisoners once having crossed it from the Judgment Hall were never seen again, and it was supposed that many of them were dropped through a trap-door into the dark and deep waters of the Canal flowing beneath.

Fugitive Facts by Robert Thorne, 1890.