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Behind the mask at Venice's Carnevale

As Carnival celebrations begin around the world, our masked writer discovers the history of Italy's most famous event

Masked revellers in Venice (Picture: Fototeca ENIT/Vita Arcomano)
Masked revellers in Venice (Picture: Fototeca ENIT/Vita Arcomano)

It’s February, and the streets of Venice are packed with masked men, plus a few flamboyant females adopting the elaborate papier mache disguises which announce the arrival of Carnevale.

Known as Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans - and plain Shrove Tuesday in Britain, where prosaic pancakes replace the revelry of other cultures in the run-up to Lent - Venice’s Carnevale also attracts visitors who love the chance to make or hire extravagant outfits, or attend a masked ball.

It seems like the continuation of an ancient tradition, but although masks and the balls at which they were worn date back to the 17th century, Carnevale would not be alive today had Italy not re-sanctioned in 1979 those traditions outlawed by Napoleon 200 years earlier.

Some enterprising students revived mask-making skills and a whole new industry was born.

Back in the day, the ball season was the culmination of several months of men behaving badly. “They were allowed to wear masks from October 5 for as long as six months,” says Mirta Baratto of Ca’Macana, Venice’s most authentic mask workshop, which makes fabulous custom creations for wealthy customers and shares its decorative knowledge with amateurs.

These well-travelled men returned to Venice from centres of debauchery elsewhere, keen to flirt and seduce women in the spirit of Casanova, the original masked lover. A mask meant no-one who might take offence at their lewd antics would be able to identify them, especially as the masks were worn with a long black smock to conceal street clothes, and topped with a hat.

While men wore a model which concealed the nose and eyes, leaving the mouth free to speak, the mask adopted by ladies was alarmingly restrictive, covering the whole face and held in place by a notch fitting into the mouth.

This had a purpose in excusing a woman from having to respond to any advances unless she fancied the proposition, in which case she would coyly remove her mask to signal her approval of the chat-up line.

Mask workshop materials (Picture: Anthea Gerrie)
Mask workshop materials (Picture: Anthea Gerrie)

This fascinating history is part of the classes Ca’Macana lays on to teach visitors the background to the Venice mask culture, while also decorating one of their own.

There’s a choice of shapes, including the spooky Plague Doctor beaked masks which, packed with aromatic herbs, offered the doctor some protection from his patients when disease struck the city. We learn how to blend and stipple our choice of acrylic paints before drying and applying varnish and a final layer of gold, silver or copper decoration, with Mirta offering creative inspiration.

Our class was arranged by the Splendid Venice, a canalside five-star hotel which organises its own Carnevale parties for guests without the means, connections or foresight to get into the much sought-after Doge’s Ball and other civic extravaganzas for which fancy dress is compulsory.

Classes are held all year round, and the misty months of February and March make for a memorable visit.

Walk three minutes from the hotel into St Mark’s Square or five to the Rialto Bridge before winter turns to spring, and you’re almost certain to encounter a masked figure still celebrating the irrepressible spirit of Carnevale.

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