There are many different traditions leading up to the beginning of the Christian fast of Lent, which the Catholic Church has practiced for considerably more than a thousand years to prepare for the celebration of Easter, Christ’s Resurrection. In the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, the fasting season begins with Meatfare (the last day on which one can eat meat) and Cheesefare (the last day to eat dairy products) and thus gradually transitions into the “Great Fast.”
In the West, however, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which this year happens tomorrow, February 22. Some European nations and their cultural inheritors around the globe have traditions and customs of celebration and parties before Ash Wednesday, culminating on the Tuesday before Lent begins. “Mardi Gras” (Fat Tuesday) is famous in America through the celebrations of formerly French-owned Louisiana, but “Carnival” or “Carnevale” is important in Italy, too.
I had the wonderful experience of being in Siena for Carnival in 2020, but there’s one Italian city people usually associate most with Carnival: Venice. One of the most famous Carnival traditions celebrated in Venice is masquerading. Aside from elaborate costumes, Venetians traditionally don hand-crafted masks for Carnival. The making of these masks has been a true art form for hundreds of years, and I would like to highlight the historical context and traditional artistic process of creating these masks today.
First of all, a little history behind Venice’s Carnival celebrations and masks:
“The exact length of Carnevale has varied from era to era and among different regions. The first recorded observance of Carnevale in Venice was in 1296…In 1463, the mask-maker’s guild was established…Perhaps the oldest mask style is the simple domino or half-mask.…The iconic Venetian mask, one found nowhere else during Carnevale, is the larva also called the volto, and it appears that this form originated in the 16th century. This mask covers half the face and is open below the nose to allow the wearer to eat, drink, and talk without being revealed…Venetian Carnevale was a major tourist destination for the European elite until the Republic fell to Napoleon’s army in 1797.
The masks were mostly cast aside for over a century, and not until the 1980s were the public Carnevale celebrations revived. Today, Venice’s mask-makers flourish again, and many have revived historical techniques.”
There are still craftsmen in Venice who make masks by hand, using traditional methods. They start by making a clay mold, putting papier-mâché inside, firing the mask, painting it white, painting it in color by hand, and glazing it. The mask-makers of Venice are keeping alive a beautiful tradition.
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