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Venetian Style Masks

Venetian masks leap from obscurity as growing popularity makes them a household word. The art form finds roots in rich history tracing back to the Renaissance and beyond. Historical background unveils the inspiration for these modern master pieces in a twofold way.

First the history of Venice plays into the development. During the Renaissance this independent city-state was a republic, strategically located on the Adriatic and booming with trade. Public masking became a unique pastime of this wealthy state.The custom grew to the point of abuse with members of all classes hiding identity while engaging in questionable behavior. Then the Church stepped in, limiting masking to a time of celebration before lent. The season began with The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) and ended at midnight before Ash Wednesday. These dates still determine Carnival season in Venice and around the world, as well as Mardi Gras season in the United States. The connection between Venice and masks was sealed forever, but another development added personalities to the masks crafted by artists.

Venetian Style Masks
Hawkers vying for attention in the bustling marketplace of Venice, offered entertainment to draw a crowd. From these humble beginnings developed a theatrical venue called Commedia dell'Arte. Comedy offered a bawdy parody of Venetian life using masks to identify stock characters that developed. Numerous travelling troupes carried productions throughout Italy and Europe with an importance given to the masks that is so different from modern times.

Today theatre, movies, and television see our favorite actors and actresses playing different roles based on the script. Commedia dell'Arte abruptly reverses the expected. No longer is one actor a multitude of characters; now all actors are one character determined by the mask. Hamlet must follow the script; Commedia dell'Arte must follow the mask. A review of the masks provides a glimpse into the humor that mimicked elements of society that made up Renaissance Venice.

Zanni Mask

Zanni Mask: The origin of Zanni is believed to be a nick-name for Giovanni, a popular given name in Bergamo. Hard times fell on these farmers as cheap imported food flooded Venice taking away their source of income. As a result, Bergamase peasants migrated to Venice working as servants. Commedia dell'Arte provides a parody with characters that live for the day, eating, sleeping, and seldom thinking. Yet Zanni has an uncanny survival instinct. Furled brow and long nose are characteristic of Zanni masks. The longer the nose, the dumber the character.

Arlecchino Mask

Arlecchino Mask: Masks for this character include eye masks with diamond-shaped patchwork, cat masks, and some connect Arlecchino to the joker mask.He is a leading Zanni with a dull mind, yet very street-wise. He is acrobatic on stage and developed into the French character, Harlequin. Arlecchino is usually a servant to Pantalone and is contriving, but his plans most often fail.

Pantalone Mask: Pantalone is the money-man in Commedia dell'Arte that employs Zanni. The mask is a long face with mustache and pointed beard that sweeps forward. Pantalone is the father of Isabella and the only character with money, although he is tight with his wallet.

Il Dottore Mask: Il Dottore comes from Bologna, the city of Italy's oldest university, and is a parody of the academia. Humor lies in his statement of the obvious in lofty words -- "a river saturated with water". This Venetian mask has bushy eyebrows and a bulbous nose.

Il Capitano Mask

Il Capitano Mask: Il Capitano masks today may be strikingly handsome, but the original leather masks used in Renaissance times were quite the contrary with a long nose and furled brow. Il Capitano is a blustering character, usually a Spaniard, who constantly brags about military exploits that are entirely fictional.Because he is not from Venice, no one knows his background and no one can refute the stories. At heart he is a coward.

Isabella Mask

Isabella Mask: Isabella is the daughter of Pantalone and enters the story line of Commedia dell'Arte as one of the lovers.The lovers are a parody of younger upper class men and women involved in courtship, but mainly in love with themselves.They were unmasked in Commedia dell'Arte, but modern artist sometimes attribute beautiful female masks to Isabella.

Columbina Mask

Columbina Mask: Columbina is a maid servant that compliments Arlecchino and is the only masked female character in Commedia dell'Arte.Unlike Arlecchino, she has intelligence, dresses well, and shows self-discipline. Columbina masks are generally elaborately decorated eye masks.

Pulcinella Mask

Pulcinella Mask: Some believe the origins of Pulcinella date back to Macchus, a character in the Attelan Fables of the Roman Republic. Early versions of this character in Commedia dell'Arte were a hunchback like Macchus and had a nose like a curved beak. A façade of good humor covers the ruthless manner of this self-centered character that developed into Punch of the Punch and Judy shows. Furled brow and long beaked nose characterize the mask.

Feather Boas

Pedrolino Mask: Youth and innocence mark Pedrolino that developed into the more familiar French character, Pierrot. He is an honest and sensitive character with a stoic appearance to hide the remorse for the slightest of injuries to others. Pierrot masks have a white face often displaying a teardrop.

Originally Commedia dell'Arte masks were made from leather, but modern artists in Venice prefer papier mache'. The beautiful designs created by Venetian masters inspire mask-makers around the world. These Venetian style masks have striking beauty that is quickly raising public awareness of this once obscure art.

Venetian Style Masks

See Complete Venetian Style Mask Selection.

Commedia dell'Arte by John Rudlin, 1994
The Comic Mask in Commedia dell'Arte by Antonio Flava, 2007
The Italian Comedy by Pierre Louis Duchartre, 1966
Lazzi by Mel Gordon, 1983, retrieved 2007