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How many knew what Venetian masks were ten years ago?  Not many, but these masks have so much history, art, and culture surrounding them that they can’t be kept a secret.  Television certainly found Venetian masks and made a statement with them.  Paris Hilton’s finale had everyone wearing one, Vampire Diary did the same, and movies like Eyes Wide Shut helped make Venetian masks a household name.    

Visit Venice and fabulous masks will take your breath as shop after shop shows their artistic masterpieces, revealing more than ever thought possible in mask making.  Venice is the home of this art and the roots go back to the Middle Ages.  A form of theatre developed during the Renaissance called Commedia dell’arte—a comedy performed in the market place with stock characters. 

The popularity took Commedia dell’arte all over Europe and the characters developed and sometimes evolved into other characters.  All the male characters in the theatre wore masks.  Originally the masks were molded in leather, but with time these characters became the inspiration for fabulous works of art that used paper mache’ and became well known as Venetian masks. 

The stock characters had their own personality and characteristics and it was the actors’ job to present the character within this framework. Subject matter was a parody of the times and the performance sometimes had written lines, but often was improvised. 

Some of the best known characters are the inspiration for today’s Venetian masks.  Perhaps the best known is Arlecchino, the servant of Pantalone, presented in masks with the familiar patch-work quilt design, representing patched clothing.  He is acrobatic, but dull witted and has an attraction for Columbina, a female servant.  Arlecchino has a wooden sword with two pieces separated by a block of wood that makes a slapping sound when he smacks someone with it.  From this comes the word “slap-stick”. 


Zanni are other servants.  They are portrayed with long noses because the longer the nose, the dumber the character.  Many believe Zanni is a corruption of Gianni, a common name from Lombard, an area that mainly relied on farming.  When Venice turned to imports for most of its food, many from Lombard were unemployed and went to Venice to work as servants. Zanni is a parody of these servants and the Zanni mask has a long nose.    


Pulcinella is perhaps the character in the Italian comedy that reaches back farthest in history.  A Pulcinella mask has a long curved beak and the derivative of the name is little chick.  He is a short hunch-backed character that is sometimes master and sometimes servant.  Some believes Pulcinella dates back to the Roman theatre, called Atellenae, performed in Rome in the late Fourth Century. 


Women characters were unmasked in the Commedia dell’arte, but the artisans in Venetian masks applied a mask to Columbina, the most famous female servant of the Italian comedy.  Arlecchino was always pursuing Columbina who, in turn, was always trying to change him, but eventually she has to accept him just as he is.  Columbina masks are rather simple eye masks. 


The characters of the Italian Comedy were exaggerations of personality traits.  II Capitano is one of those exaggerations.  He claims to be a Spanish soldier with a history of courageous feats, while deep down he is really a coward.  Capitano masks often include the military hat and superb masks for men.    

II Dottore actually claims to be a university professor rather than a medical doctor.  He misuses words and expounds useless knowledge in an ostentatious way.  The mask has a bulbous nose, bushy eyebrows, and a furled brow. 


The jolly mask, also referred to as the joker mask is extremely popular in Venetian masks and if we connect it to a character, it would have to be Arlecchino because he is acrobatic and often considered more of a jester than a servant.  These are some of the most fabulous Venetian masks and are used as wall hangings as well as full faced masks.  The mask usually includes the curled horns of a jester hat and come in styles for men and women. 


The Bauta mask actually dates back to public masking in Venice rather than the Italian comedy.  Masking went on year round and promoted promiscuous behavior before the Church stepped in and set the dates for masking between the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan 6) and the day before Ash Wednesday (Mardi Gras Day).  The Bauta mask was popular because it not only covered the face, but the long chin area covered the mouth and muffled the voice, making it difficult to identify anyone acting up.  This mask became traditional for Carnival and is often seen during Carnival in Venice.   


Some Venetian masks are simply beautiful works of art and do not find their beginnings in characters of the Commedia dell’arte.  VM72 is such a mask with white and silver or gold color and a crown of flowing white ostrich feathers.  The mask come on a stick and is a top selling mask for Venetian weddings.  VM71 offers the same style that stays in place with elastic bands. 

Venetian masks are one breath-taking work of art after another.  Anyone glancing through the category has to be impressed.  Many retailers are a little reluctant to branch into Venetian masks because price points are higher than feather masks or masquerade masks.  Don’t be reluctant because of price.  Start slowly and test the waters with your customer base.  Most retailers that have done this get a good response and return for more inventory to widen their selection.  Venetian masks are just too gorgeous for customers to ignore.

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