“Universal madness… the women, men, and persons of all conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses with extravagant musique and a thousand gambols.” – John Evelyn
Carnival festivities in Italy were widely renowned and were directed at foreigners as well as the locals. It provided the opportunity for men and women to come together without the need to discuss serious matters, though trade often did occur. In order to fully invest in the free and anonymous spirit of Carnival, all partakers donned a mask.
Many Venetians would dress up as their favorite stock characters from commedia dell’arte including:
(1) Mattacino – all white except for red shoes/laces, feathered hat
(2) Pantalone – the emblem of Venice; red waistcoat and black cloak
(3) Arlecchino – multicolored costume
(4) Pulcinella – likely the most popular mask, originating from Naples; dressed with large white trousers and large shirt
Besides the commedia dell’arte masks, the most popular form of costume was the bauta – silk or velvet the covered the head and shoulders with a three-cornered hat worn on top; the face was then covered by a half-mask or a beak-like mask known as larva.
In addition to these, some individuals wore other styles of masks including some which were meant to be held between the teeth, preventing speech. In general, men tended to wear white masks and women wore black.
Carnival masking traditions were taken quite seriously by the population and even if the mask did not fully disguise the masked individual, their identity was never to be revealed.
Additional reading including more information about commedia dell’arte characters replicated during Carnival: