Venetian costume has traditionally been worn at the city’s carnival, along with masks, to conceal the wearer’s identity and set aside in any formalities relating to a social class, gender, or religion.
Based on these costumes and masks, one could convey attitudes and behaviors based on the changing appearance. For this reason, the greeting that sounded continually in the act of crossing a new “character” was simply “Buongiorno signora maschera”.
PHOTO: Typical modern Venetian costumes at the annual carnival.
Being able to participate incognito in this joyful tradition was, and still is, the very essence of the Carnival.
The disguises allowed Venetians carefree time from their daily routines and from all prejudices and gossip. The carnival was a big stage with disguises, in which ‘actors’ and ‘audiences’ melted into a unique procession of shapes and colors.
The widespread practice of using disguises for the Carnival in Venice was born apparently from nothing, but gradually developed into a real trade in masks and costumes. In fact, as late as 1271, there were still no reports of mask making, mask manufacturing schools, or techniques for their implementation.
After their popularity rose dramatically, the industrial Venetians soon started producing tools for the machining of specific materials for the masks and costumes. For the masks, after the construction phase of the models, the work is finished with coloring the masks, and enriching them with decorative details such as drawings, embroidery, beads, feathers and so on.
The so-called ‘mascareri’ (mask-makers) became real craftsmen, making masks of all styles, in increasingly rich and sophisticated styles. The profession was officially recognized by a statute of April 10, 1436, and to this day, the document is preserved in the State Archives of Venice.
One of the most common costumes in the ancient carnival, especially in the 18th century, was Bauta (pronounced with the accent on the u), very popular at the peak popularity of the carnival, and worn even today in the modern Carnival festival.
This figure, clothed in typical Venetian style and worn by both men and women, consists of a particular mask called white larva, worn under a black tricorn hat and accompanied by an dark cloak.
Bauta was used extensively during the Carnival months, but also in other parties, for amorous encounters and whenever a Venetian desired the freedom to court or be courted, guaranteeing each other’s anonymity.
For this purpose, the particular shape of the Bauta mask on the face ensured the possibility to eat and drink without having to remove the disguise.
Another typical costume of the time was ‘Gnaga’, a simple dressing for men, very easy to implement and quite common in use.
Gnaga was made of common women’s clothing with a mask that had the likeness of a cat, accompanied by a basket on his arm that usually contained a kitten. The character is posing as a commoner little woman, uttering shrill meows.
Many women, on the other hand, wore a disguise called Moretta, which consisted of a small mask in black velvet, worn with a delicate hat and refined clothes. Moretta was a simplistic disguise, because the mask had to stand on the wearers face using a button in the mouth (and for this reason the costume was also called a ‘silent servant’).