From boisterous public dances to exclusive ballroom galas, the masquerade ball has always been an important part of celebrating Carnival. This annual season of revelry, which occurs in the weeks before Lent, is filled with rambunctious masquerading, parading and feasting. By the 16th century, traditions for hosting and attending lavish parties were well-established in European societies. The romantic Renaissance era made its mark on the clothing and masks worn at the mysterious dances, influencing many of the fashions that appear at modern balls.

The French Bal Masque

During Carnival, the streets in France were filled with villagers parading in elaborate costumes and masks. The pageantry ended with grand public balls, where attendees kept their faces concealed, freeing them from the era's strict rules of social behavior. Wealthy aristocrats and French royalty also hosted extravagant, invite-only masquerade balls throughout the year to celebrate marriages and commemorate political victories. Musicians, actors, acrobats and jesters entertained the guests, who donned ornamental masks with their corseted dresses and long-tail tuxedos.

Exportation throughout Europe

The French flair for throwing magnificent masquerade balls quickly spread throughout Europe, as contact between cultures increased throughout the 16th century. Many traditions were incorporated into Carnival celebrations in Spain, Portugal and Italy, then brought to Africa, the West Indies and the Americas by European explorers and colonial settlers. Because slaves were banned from attending such lavish events, they created their own versions of the masquerade ball to rejoice in the harvest and poke fun at the ruling class.

Venetian Ballo in Maschera

Italians readily embraced the masquerade ball and seamlessly blended it into the centuries-old Carnival traditions that already existed. Wealthy Venetians in the 16th century elevated the grand affair into a masterpiece of art. Mascereri, members of professional papier maché guilds, were hired to craft ornate couture masks for those who were lucky enough to receive an invitation to a ballo in maschera. Entertainment for the rowdy evening included processionals, waltzing and boisterous games.

Popular Masks of the Era

Masks were most often constructed from paper or clay, but they were decorated with a wide variety of materials, including gilded paint, gemstones, glass beads, feathers and ribbons. French women favored the moretta mask, a black oval that was held in place by biting down on a button in the back, while men wore the white, ghost-like larva mask. Venetian masks were influenced by the archetype characters in the commedia dell'arte, a popular form of street theater, including the jester, servant and wealthy fool. Women typically wore the Columbine half-face mask that covers the eyes, nose and cheekbones and is tied with a ribbon or held with a stick.