Venetian Half Masks

Learn about Venetian half masks, such as columbina, which was originally designed for a popular Commedia dell’Arte actress, to cover only half of her beautiful face.

Historically, during the Venice Carnival, wearing masks, even Venetian half masks and costumes was a way to conceal the wearers identity and take away any references to a social class, gender, or religion.

Instead, anyone could show attitudes and behaviors based on their new costumes and by changing appearances. For this reason, the Venetian greeting that sounded continually when meeting a new character was simply to say ‘Buongiorno signora maschera’.

Using the incognito masks and a anonymous joyful participation at the festivities was, and still is, the very essence of the Carnival, carefree time of liberation from daily routines, prejudices, and gossip.

Throughout its history, the Venice carnival has been a big stage in disguise, in which actors and audience have melted into a unique procession of shapes and colors.

With the increasingly widespread practice of disguise for the Carnival, a real trade in masks and costumes was born from nothing and gradually developed into a major industry.

However, as late as 1271, there were no reports of mask making, mask making schools or techniques for their manufacturing.

This mask manufacturing industry and the artists behind the mask marking, so-called mascareri, became, over time, real craftsmen, making masks of styles of increasingly rich and sophisticated decoration.

The profession was officially recognized with a statute of April 10, 1436, preserved today in the State Archives of Venice.

Venetian masks

PHOTO: A Venetian storefront with full and half-face carnival masks.

There are several types of common half and full masks used at the Venice Carnival.

Perhaps the most common costumes in the ancient carnival, especially in the eighteenth century, even in the modern Carnival, is certainly the Bauta (using a full face mask, pronounced with the accent on the u).

This figure, which is in typical Venetian style and worn by both men and women, consists of a particular form called white larva under a black tricorn hat and accompanied by an enveloping dark cloak.

The Bauta was in use extensively during the Carnival period, but also in the theater (and other parties), in amorous encounters, and whenever one desired the freedom to court or be courted, guaranteeing each other an anonymity.

For this purpose, the shape of the mask on the face ensured the opportunity to both eat and drink without having to remove the mask.

Of the half-masks, one of the most popular is the columbina (also known as Aquilegia, Columbine, and Columbino), often highly decorated with a lavish selection of gold, silver, crystals and feathers.

The columbina is typically held up to the face by a baton or tied with ribbon, as with most other Venetian masks.

The columbina half mask was popularised by an early actress in the Commedia dell’arte, with a recurring character of the same name.

It is said the half-mask was designed for her especially, because she did not wish to have her beautiful face covered completely.

As a character, the colombine is a housemaid and associated with another popular Carnival character, Arlecchino (Harlequin).

The look often features heavy cosmetics around the eyes and a flirtatious personality.

Another typical costume of the Carnival is the Gnaga, a simple dressing for women, easy to implement and use.

Its use as women’s clothing was very common, combined with a mask with the likeness of cat, accompanied by a basket on an arm that usually contained a kitten.

Many women, however, also wore a disguise called Moretta (which had French origins), consisting of a small mask of black velvet, worn with a delicate hat and refined clothes.

Moretta disguise, often called the ‘silent servant’, was held on its place on the face by button inside, kept in mouth, which meant the wearer was unable to speak while wearing it.

Other popular characters from Commedia dell’arte, often depicted with half-masks include Pantaleone, an old merchant, who, despite his age, does not lose his sparkle, and always demonstrates a knack for business and for the beautiful ladies.

This character is typically dressed for the carnival in a long black robe, which covers red tights.