During Carnival in Venice, many revelers wear exotic masks. A tradition dating back hundreds of years, historically, mask-wearing encouraged an atmosphere of secrecy and enchantment in which rank, social status and profession could be momentarily forgotten. Today, this tradition has spread to the United States and other places in the world in which Carnival or Mardi Gras is celebrated.

History of Venetian Masks

Mask-wearing has been a social custom in Venice since the 13th century, when masked men threw eggs at women during Carnival. As the custom grew, Venetians wore masks in public for a period of about six months out of every year. By then, Commedia Dell'Arte had arisen, a type of theater in which actors wore elaborate masks, and Mardi Gras festivals were appearing in North and South America. New Orleans' annual celebration became one of the nation's biggest festivals. Today, most local businesses encourage the wearing of masks on parade floats, to the extent that city folklore claims it's illegal not to wear one.

Uses of Masks

In Venice, mask-wearing helped to bridge social divisions. Men and women wore them so that they could speak openly to people of other classes with whom they would not normally associate. Some wore them to pursue amorous relationships in secret; Casanova wrote in his memoirs about romantic trysts with masked women, and how he was nearly apprehended by masked police. Today, people wear masks to participate in the color and excitement, the exotic richness and sensuality of Mardi Gras.

Types of Masks

Historically one of the most commonly worn masks during Carnival was the bauta mask, a mask that only covers half the face and was sometimes accompanied by a tri-cornered hat and cloak. Famous masks of the Commedia Dell'Arte included the Plague Doctor, a scary mask with a long, beaked nose, and the Gatto, a mask shaped like a cat. Today, during Mardi Gras, revelers might wear Phantom of the Opera-style masks that only cover half the face, masks on sticks, sequined masks, feathered masks, lace masks, masks accompanied by headdresses and masks of many colors.

The Making of Masks

Typically, a traditional Venetian mask is made out of leather, glass or papier-mache. It may be encrusted with jewels and precious stones or decked with feathers, lace and ribbons, and painted. If you're making a papier-mache mask, begin by creating a plaster mold and then lightly applying petroleum jelly to prevent the mask and mold from becoming inseparably stuck together. Once the mold has been constructed, the artisan heats it in an oven until it hardens, after which he creates the eyes and adds varnish.