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The Carnival Mask of Venice: Vanity or Transgression?

Home » The Carnival Mask of Venice: Vanity or Transgression?

The Carnival Mask of Venice: Vanity or Transgression?

“Venice can carry one away; one can be carried away by the idea of Venice, though never to that place where he appears to reside. One is transgressed, but Venice remains untouched, elswhere, below the surface like an itch one can never scratch”. – Julian Wolfreys

These days Venice is celebrating the Venetian Carnival that this year will last till the 28 of Feburary. Right place and time to spell a word about both: Venice and the Carnival, notable for being a homeland to mirage and transgression from times immemorial. Just think of Giacomo Casanova and elegant courtesans.

The theme of this year Venetian Carnival is “Creatum: Vanity Af-Fair”. Let’s think about the name. Vanity as excessive pride of proper appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc. has been always recognized as a transgression of modesty. Hence, a major human virtue’ transgression. Yet, I just can’t help myself asking: whose vanity?

Venice – City of Mirage, Love and Beauty

A World Heritage Site since 1987, Venice is situated across a group of 118 small islands. Due to its totally unique structure, throughout the centuries Venice was referred to with so many names. The islands of the “Floating City”, are separated by canals and connected by bridges. The “City of Water” is connected to mainland by Venice Railroad Bridge. The whole “City of Bridges”, or  “City of Canals”, is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece.

Venice, gandolas, canalsVenice, masterpieceLet alone Piazza San Marco and Piazzetta, even the smallest building of “La Dominante” contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others.

The Duality of The City Name

Yet, what about the original name of “la Serenissima”? According to some linguists the name of Venice derives from an Indo-European root *wen (“love”), so that *wenetoi would mean “beloved”, “lovable”, or “friendly”.  Whilst others suggest that the connection with the Latin word venetus (“blue as the sea”) is also possible.

Venice, Venetian CarnivalVenice, behind the maskVenice, mirageVenice, vanity, maskVenice, carnival, mask, costumes

The Duality of Human Spirit

Just as its name, the whole being of Venice symbolizes the duality: the lagoon city reflects upon itself as an endless chamber of mirrors. However, the reflection is inaccurate. How inaccurate is the the reflection of human actions and their true desires. Modesty and vanity, virtue and transgrassion, reckless entertainment and secret political strategy – all of Venice is built on contradictions. From the historical point of view.

“Magic mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?”

Venice is unique in its beauty. And during the Carnival, its the only place in the world where nothing is real and everything is possible. Not by chance, among other names it is also referred to as , the”City of Masks”, “City of Mirages”, “City of Illusion”, or even, the “Cradle of Transgression”. Sure, immagination takes its part, but the all-embracing atmosphere of mystery is real. Let’s see.

Mysterious mist seductively descends to blur the borders of human silhouetts. The canals with alluring gandolas, narrow streets and romantic bridges, seductive scents of eastern spices and tasting notes of Italian wine… Everything is there to create the atmosphere of mirage reality. But mostly, this atmpsphere is achieved by the mask wearing and anonymity hiding behind it.

Venice, mask, vanity, transgression

Venice, costumes, masks, trnsgrassion

Venice, costumes, mask, CarnivalCarniva, Venice

Venice, mask, Carnival

In fact, these days, carried away and inebriated by bygone traditions or secret expectations contemporary people from all over the world engage to make a part of an enchanting reality. The sophisticatedely masqueraded people are everywhere along the calles of Venice. From Piazza Duomo to Piazza San Marco to Riva degli Schiavoni and so on. British, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Italians themselves, as well as many others, are here to reveal their their true nature behind the mask. And, to face their secret fantasies.

The highly sophisticated variety of Venetian Carnival masks and costumes impresses with its abundance. Yet, some tips to understand Venetian mask types still may be useful…

The Venetian Mask

The Venetian mask is notable for being the symbol of mystery and mirage, as well as freedom from daily habits, prejudices and gossips. Even if Venetian people actually never wanted to stop gossips about them. On the contrary, they have always feed them generously.

Experienced strategists, Venetian knew that the best way to hide their true secrets is to wear a sophisticated vanity mask, in the most carefree and flirting way. Hence the worst thing one was be suspected in – by authoritues or enemies – at least could be transgression or heresy. However, history tells us that Venetian mask was often used as red herring: an elegant strategy for much more important political intrigues.

Still today each Ventian mask never ceases to enchant. Its beauty, high quality materials and handmade work make each one a splendid masterpiece. Unique among others: Venetians believe that each mask has its own spirit. Not by chance Latin word for “mask”, Lavra, could be also translated as “ghost”.


A leading role among various Carnival outfits has always had the Bauta. A fashionable accessory, often worn in the theatre and during the festivals, the Venetian Bauta was also highly used in daily life, in order to maintain anonymity. Still today Bauta remains the favourite choice among Carnival participants due to its simplicity and versatility. The Bauta can be of two types: the Bauta mask and Bauta costume. The Bauta mask, or Larva, is a simple mask that hides the face yet allows to use to speak, eat and drink (differently from Moretta Mask). The Bauta costume represents a complete Venice Carnival gown consisting of a black or dark mantle, or cloak,  a black three-cornered hat and the Larva. Often Bauta costume was used by women – to mislead the traces when the situation required.


Another “favourite” among Venetian Carnival gowns has always been the Gnaga, worn by men in order to immitate female figures. And how! Lets see: this gown includes female clothing and a mask with the image of a female cat, and could be supplemented by a basket held under the arm, with a kitten inside! The allusion between women and cats becomes so evident…

Mystery of Venice


Yet, Venetian women’s favorite was the Moretta Mask, since it particularly suited the feminine features. This small oval mask with Lavra made of dark velvet on it, was worn along with a sophisticated hat and clothes. Moretta is famous for being ‘mute‘: in order to keep it on her face, a lady had to hold a button attached to mask’s underside in her mouth. Silence, after all, has always been the best female weapon to get ever more mysterious!

Venetian Carnival Behind The Mask

Once upon a time…

Good morning Siora Mask“, that was the usual greeting whispered along the narrow Venetian streets or yelled out from the windows of nobilty palaces. Yet, the voice was “merely the significant symptom of all that disorientates in Venice” [Julian Wolfreys, Transgression: Identity, Space, Time. p.145]. Personal identity, gender, social class no longer existed. This mirage was the main ingredient of the Great Illusion of Carnival.  Thus Venice had gain itself a glory for being a place,  where anything could happen.

During the Carnival festivities the Venetians generously afforded themselves every type of transgression. Both men and by women used Bauta mask and Moretta mask to maintain their anonymity. Mask wearing allowed any forbidden game to take place. Even the priests and nuns took advantage of the mask wearing to conceal themselves transgression and making amorous getaways or “multas inhonestas”…

Since the mask permited to maintain anonymity, Venetians loved and widely used sophisticated mask tradition on many other occasions during the year. Wearing traditional Venetian mask or gown one could completely disguise his/her identity to become someone new and mysterious. 

Let alone political intrigues and amorous transgressions, unfortunately, there were negative implications as well. A part from hiding personal identity, gender and social class, the cloak was also a perfect way to hide weapons and dangerous objects. Thereby, duels and crimes were often threatening the atmosphere of the Carnival and intrinsic meaning of the Venetian mask. Namely: anonymity as freedom from prejudice, light flirt, life enjoyment, or even transgrassion and sophisticated political intrigues. But gracefully and elegantly, without intending or causing harm.


Nowadays, when the era duels is finally over, Venice is facing other negative implications of the Carnival. Sad but true, most Venetian people percieve the whole atmosphere of Carnival is ruined ever since the event has been trasformed in massive international vanity fair. With “vanity fair” being a mere coincidence of the term chosen for this year edition. Maybe.

Moreover, some Venetian people feel contradictory about Carnival period. They love it, but at the same time they are somewhat close to hate it. Several Venetians I have talked to had no difficulties to explaine this.

Here is the summary:

  • “La Serenissima” (literally “the most calm”), which welcomes numerous tourists all year long, during the Carnival becomes too hectic and “overpopulated” making it “….impossible to live in...”
  • Not low Venetian prices become even higher during the Carnival period (keep in mind that Venice is one of the most expencive cities in Italy, if not in the whole world)
  • Unfortunately, mass tourism is literally distructing Venice, its sidewalks, its roadways, its bridges, its piers and docks. The worst of all is so-called “one-day-tourism” which in its conceited desire to see and to be is practically consuming Venice.

To further complicate matters, think now of cruise ships, those ten floor buildings crossing the lagoon several times a day and thus constantly raising the level of water throughout the lagoon of Venice and its canals. Should I mention the foreseeable consequences? Thought so.

Masks Off


On the 24th of January 2017, The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, received the Mayor of Venice, Mr. Luigi Brugnaro, at UNESCO Headquarters, to discuss the protection of the city of Venice and its Lagoon. Brugnaro outlined the measures taken to protect the city and the lagoon after the UNESCO had launched an ultimatum. In fact, until the 1/02/2017 the municipality of Venice and the government had to come up with the solution to face the critical problems of Venice. (Namely: mass tourism, huge waves, cruise ships, restoration, etc.). Problems that must be resoleved in order prove that Venice is not worth entering in the UNESCO list of endangered sites. That means: expelled.

True, that at the end of this long meeting Irina Bokova expressed satisfaction of commitment carried out by the city and by the government. The problem, thus, seems to be risolved. At least for now.


On the other hand, only a few understand that “La Dominante” does actually belong to Venetians. People, who need the excessive protections to be taken off since they make it “….impossible to live in….” What am I talking about? I’ll make myself clear. Let alone, the Palazzo Ducale or the Cà d’Oro. Just think that all Venetian houses (and apartments) are under strict control of the supervisors. Imagine thus obvious difficulties that arise each time when it comes to “buy” or “sell” property. Not to mention, “remove” or even “paint” a wall of a “proper” house.

Perhaps, the logic solution to overcome such difficulties could be a separation of the “city of canals” from Mestre.

Or, maybe, a “closure” of Venice Railroad Bridge to so-called “one-day-tourists”. With all due respect to international or local tourism, the “one-day-tourists” – when it comes to Venice – are like vandals massively destroying this delecate “ghost-city”.

In each case, Venice would gain more autonomy and more freedom. Hence the chances to preserve its truly unique fashion and World Heritage ever longer, would increase at least three times.

Creatum: Vanity Af-Fair

All abovementioned facts are old news already. As well as today’s greetings are different in nature from those once adressed to “Siora Mask”. Venice of today has no transgression shade, and only the slightest one of vanity.

Yet still today, nevertheless well-known difficulties, Venice attracts visitors from all over the world. Moreover, the “city of mirage” embraces tourists warmly at its womb. As quicksands entices and drags people into its world of costumes, tricks, dances, role plays and romantic encounters. Things that our human nature – as opposed to devine – eagers so much. Admit it or not.

We say, the alluring atmosphere of Venetian Carnival is somewhat due to and enveloped in a melody of a bygone era. We say, we celebrate Carnival to commemorate the old-rooted tradition. Seriously, do we just honor the tradition? Or are we curious to experience the freedom of anonymity behind the mask it affords? Do we actually care about protecting this delicate World Heritage Site? Or do we just care to satisfy our selfish desire to see and experience?

That, my friends, is vanity. A pure vanity that is far beyond from transgression since there’s no role to play, no mystery to resolve, no fantasy to transgress or no mirage to be transgressed behind the mask. Today, it’s our human vanity manifesting itself in all shapes that humankind could ever create. To make ever more evident the basic one: our human selfishness. Hence, whoever invented the name of this year edition couldn’t make it up better than this. Role play or word play, behind the mask both will always remain a mirage.

Venice, mask, carnival

Me and Venice

I am not here to judge. One foot in front of the other, I am right here walking among other masqueraded visitors along the Venetian calles… My Venice… Mine once – mine forever. So here I walk… Along Venetian sidewalks, roadways, bridges and piazzas. Totally absorbed by the atmosphere of mirage reality. Fascinated and bewitched, I’m carried away by Venice… And never willing to come back.

With Love from Venice


2018-07-06T17:05:35+00:00By |Categories: Italian Temptations|Tags: , , , , |0 Comments

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