The History of the Venetian Mask

For about 800 years the people of the Venetian Republic enjoyed a high standard of living, considered a breed apart from their European cousins. Venice was unquestionably the most extravagant and beautiful state on the Continent.

During the 13th Century Venetians would hold many celebrations and parties from December 26th until the start of Lent, when aristocrats and peasants alike were disguised by their party costumes and, more significantly, by their masks. This developed into a rather unique culture – concealing one’s identity on a daily basis by wearing masks. Traditionally these masks were very ornate with bright colours and complex decorations.

This resulted in two outcomes: initially the masks served a social purpose, giving everyone a voice without fear of retribution. Servants and noblemen alike were indistinguishable. Statesmen could ask questions of citizens who spoke the truth, with no fear of repercussion.

Eventually, however, this anonymity led to a moral decay. As society grew ever-more decadent, there were no limits: women’s clothing became more revealing, previously-banned gambling took place night and day and general debauchery was commonplace.

By the 18th Century mask-wearing was down to six months of the year as the original religious association and significance of the Carnival diminished. Near the end of the Republic’s days the daily wearing of masks was restricted to a 3-month period starting 26th December, then further to only during Carnival week. When Napoleon signed Venice over to the Austrians in 1797 the carnival celebrations were effectively brought to a halt for many years.

In 1979 the ‘Carnevale di Venezia’ was revived, lasting for the 10 days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. It has become one of the world’s most famous carnivals enjoyed by many tourists and Venetians alike. The design of masks and accompanying costumes has become an artistic avenue, culminating in thousands of visitors watching the fantastic spectacles paraded around St. Mark’s Square and during the many evening masked balls.

At Little Venice we embrace this time of joy and celebration ‘back home’. You will see many beautiful Carnival masks decorating our walls, honouring this age-old tradition.


Late August, 1971: Little Venice Grand Opening

2004: Wine Bar Opens

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