An important part of any individual’s life is their identity. Whether you are sure of it or not, the exclusivity is what makes it sacred. The possibility of another exposing your identity, making you vulnerable in some way is a terrifying thought and thus the need to conceal identities has been seen to be as notable a phenomenon as the development of identity itself.
The practice of identity concealment can be seen throughout history, from prehistoric cave paintings depicting animal masks to our 21st century social networking profiles and avatars. The need to hide oneself, for whatever reasons, seems to be present throughout time; yet there are few eras which have produced masks as bold and elaborate as the ancient Venetians.
Historians argue that masks were being used by individual Venetians as far back as 726 AD. It is believed there was no popular collective usage of masquerade masks until early 1268, however there is no evidence to support this theory. The original masks were primarily pure white in colour, but with the introduction of the Venetian Carnival bolder colours were introduced as additions to the white paper mache.
The significance of the masquerade mask in the early festivals is rather ambivalent, however by 1436 mask makers had been granted official artisan status suggesting they and their creations played an important role in society.
One of the principal attractions of the masquerade mask is the ability to cloak identity and thus breach the regulations of civilised behaviour without risk of being recognised. Despite an existing law, passed in 1338, banning individuals from wearing masks out in public at night the 18th century saw men and women donning masquerade masks to visit gambling houses. Masks were also used when visiting the brothels of Venice. The patrons of these institutions were primarily upper-class English men, or so the contemporary tourist guides dictate.
It should be noted these artful masks were not used for debauchery alone; they were also employed in more violent activities. A competition known as Guerra Dei Pugni, or “The War of the Fists”, saw teams of men violently assaulting each other whilst wearing masks as a form of disguise. This bloody competition was banned in 1705 when fists were replaced with knives.
By the late 18th century street performers began wearing brightly coloured masks to draw attention to their performances. Initially these were rather distorted and unnatural in appearance often scaring women and children. Over time it became understood that the different masks represented different characters. The most popular being the Joker with a bold, cheerful mask. Often the performances were unscripted, but the characters were consistent making it unnecessary to explain which character was which.
While masquerade masks can still be seen in the theatre today, it is most popular at social events like the annual Venetian Carnival held in Venice, Italy each February. Men and women flock from all corners of the globe to attend this two week party famous for its distinctive costumes and elaborate masks.