3 years, 9 months ago
One of the highlights of Venice Carnival is Calcio Storico, a medieval ballgame so bloodthirsty and violent it makes George R. R. Martin come over like a Sweet Sixteen party planner. The aim is to get a ball from one end of a pitch to another by fair means or foul and there only seems to be one rule: costume. Because it’s Carnival and as far as Venetians are concerned any excuse is a good excuse to dress-up – even a murderous medieval rampage calling itself ’historic football’.
Off the field, the action might seem more sedate, but the Venice Carnival costume rule still applies. Gowns, towering wigs, lace and satin are perfectly acceptable daywear for the on-point Mardi Gras celebrant. Evening wear is all about cloaks, beribboned knee breeches and silk man-stockings. And, from the sombre, democratising ‘Bauta’ to the flirty ‘Columbina’, sinister ‘Plague Doctor’ and playful ‘Pulcinella’, masks are just about everywhere.
But if you think you can just turn up, sling on the original fascinator and join the fray, you’re wrong. Masks, like just about every other Venetian custom, are enshrined in complex and mysterious etiquette. And the mask you choose, come Mardi Gras season, can reveal much more than you know.
If you’re not a Venetian citizen give this one a miss. It’s the full-face, featureless mask traditionally worn to disguise the identity of voters in the bad old days before the ballot box. The full-Bauta isn’t a popular Carnival choice but, accessorised with a jaunty tricorn and flowing cape, it’s a definite statement piece. Carnival visitors can bend the rules and go for a more glamorous version which doesn’t require citizenship and comes with a painted mouth. But be warned, even the contemporary version takes a bit of stride-out confidence and works best with all-out fancy dress.
Legend has it that this mask was created for a 17th century Commedia dell’arte actress who didn’t want to conceal her beautiful face fully on stage. Designed to be held by a stick or lightly tied with ribbon, it’s the flirtiest Carnival mask and the one most women choose for parties or the famously decadent Masquerade Balls. Bold is the byword for a true Columbina, so think feathers, beads, lace and the kind of OTT gilding that would make Maison Ferrero Rocher look humble.
Like La Bauta, this distinctive mask originally had a practical purpose. Developed in the 17th century by a French physician, it supposedly protected Plague Doctors from infection while treating the sick – they also wore long, dark cloaks and carried a big stick, just in case the sinister, hook beaked mask didn’t say ‘grim reaper’ clearly enough. Today’s Medico Della Peste masks continue the fine tradition of the huge, hollow beak and instead of original crystal eye glasses, have round glasses painted on to the mask itself. This one is definitely not for the faint-hearted and Venetians often wear it during Carnival in memory of their dead loved ones.
If the Plague Doctor is a mask too far for you but you still like the idea of a beak (who doesn’t?) opt for the decidedly more fun Pulcinella. Translated as ‘little chick’, Pulcinello is the prototype for Mr Punch whose questionable antics were a bit of a favourite in the heyday of traditional seaside holidays. But, unlike his English doppelganger, the Italian Pulcinella doesn’t carry a stick or beat up on babies. He’s more mischievous than malign and nowadays a highly decorated half-mask with Pulcinella beak is a perfectly acceptable, flirty male counterpart to the coy Columbina.
Columbina’s lover, Arlecchino, is another popular Venice Carnival character. You might recognise him better as Harlequin, he of the patchwork pants and beribboned slippers. But, if you don’t want to go full dress-up, you can just opt for the drama of his traditional black leather half-mask instead. Not quite as menacing as it sounds and designed to let Columbina’s loveliness shine by comparison so a good, understated choice to ease first-timers into the Carnival spirit.
There are as many mask shops in Venice as there are overpriced gondolas and they’re all intent on selling you the city’s most cunning disguise. But if your budget doesn’t stretch to an authentic 17th century original, you can always make your own masterpiece at Ca’Macana, one of the city’s oldest and most celebrated mask makers. Their regular multi-lingual workshops are a fantastic way to spend a few hours immersed in the traditions of the masquerade, create a limited edition mask and pick up a whole new set of skills in the process – best Venice Carnival souvenir, ever, guaranteed.