Venetian masks are perhaps the best surviving style of mask today, in the sense that their use is similar today to what they were used for when they were first invented. This isn’t surprising, as their use was social and political, rather than religious, shamanistic or funerary. They initially appeared in the Carnival of Venice, a major festival in Venice which dates all the way back to the twelfth century, and which continues to this day attracting some 3 million participants annually.
The festival and its masks are historically considered a response to the fixed societal structures that were common for medieval Europe. Maintaining social order meant making sure that the social classes are not only clearly divided in their powers and levels of privilege, but also in their appearance and lifestyle. An attempt to appear wealthier than you are was considered an encroachment on the societal privileges of the upper classes. In turn, the wealthy were restricted from adopting a lifestyle so lavish that they would be confused with the nobility that held political power. Luxurious excess was considered to be an attempt to supplant the ruling elites. The concern was so great that this division was enforced not only socially, but also legally. These were known as Sumptuary laws, and they dictated the limits of the kinds of food, clothing and personal possessions that were allowed for each social class to remain in their lane. The hierarchy was seen as the load-bearing pillar of medieval society.
Invariably, this rigidity created problems and tensions. Identity based primarily on social class meant that there was little freedom of expression. Political views outside of the norms of your social class were seen as dangerous, and intermingling with social classes of lower standing was considered suspicious. Whether too favorable towards the lower class or too critical of the higher, Venetians had to be careful of their behavior and speech at all times in the interests of safety. The masks and the festival itself was a genius way to circumvent this problem. The sumptuary laws were not in effect during the Carnival of Venice and social classes could intermingle freely, anonymized by their masks to make sure no consequence befalls them once the festival is over. This enabled diplomacy, freedom of expression, romantic connections between classes, as well as facilitating more nefarious activity. The Carnival of Venice represented something of a social pressure release valve, but for a limited time. Wearing masks in daily life was strictly prohibited.
Among the most common masks at the time was the Bauta. This is a mask worn exclusively by men because only citizens were allowed to wear it, and only men could be citizens. It was often worn with “tabarro”, a black cape that, in combination with the Bauta, perfectly concealed the identity of the wearer. They were used to facilitate democracy in a completely anonymous fashion. Women’s version of the Bauta was the Colombina, a half-mask that is heavily decorated and was more of a theatrical accessory, than a political instrument.