Venetian Carnival Masks: The Great Equalizer

Venetian Carnival Masks

Handmade Venetian Carnival Masks— the first thing customers see when entering our front door.  Not exactly what many expect to see from their favorite tobacconist…

Why do we carry Venetian masks? Tourists often muse that there must be a lot of parties hosting Washington’s elite Eyes Wide Shut style…  Others think they are a collection we proudly display museum style, not realizing they are for sale.  The truth is, Georgetown Tobacco has always carried a variety of handmade crafts, and “I just thought they were beautiful,” according to Georgetown Tobacco owner, David Berkebile.  As with many of the vendors we have partnered with over the years, David really liked the mother and daughter team he met at a gift show who import the masks from Italy, and decided to try selling them in the store.

That was over 20 years ago, and we do sell a lot of masks. Not just for those D.C. parties, but also for masquerade weddings, murder-mystery dinners, Mardi Gras, and of course, Halloween.  Unlike any other costume, these masks are truly works of art that can be proudly displayed on a wall or bookshelf when not in use.

What you may not know is how the Venetian masks relate to cigars, a fact that dates back to medieval times. Curious? Read on…

One of the most beautiful things about our industry is how cigars act as a great equalizer— regardless of profession, regardless of politics, when people come together at Georgetown Tobacco we all share a common bond in our appreciation for handmade premium cigars.  People who may otherwise never meet, let alone engage in conversation, form great connections and friendships while smoking a cigar.

The story of the Venetian mask is also rooted in equality.  Dating back to the 13th Century, when Venice was a premier maritime, financial and commercial center, masks were used not just for Carnival (a two week celebration leading culminating in Fat Tuesday and the beginning of Lent), but throughout the year to provide precious anonymity. The elite and peasants alike could go about the city in total disguise.  Star-crossed lovers could meet; monks could gamble; secret business deals could be made… and of course other nefarious activities could be conducted without fear of retribution.

The masks we carry today, made of papier maché and then decorated with paint, small jewels, feathers or bells are all designs that date back to these historic times.

Doctors wore a version of the Venetian mask with a long nose and glass covered eyes in an attempt to protect themselves from the bubonic plague between 1346 and 1353.  They would stuff herbs and flowers into the nose of the mask, wear leather gloves and carry a stick to keep people at bay.

The Bauta, a simple (creepy) white mask with an elongated nose and mouth, was worn by both men and women along with a tri-corner hat and hood to provide complete anonymity.

The Columbina, a half mask often painted in colorful hues or adorned with crystals, comes from a famous character in the Commedia dell’arte, a form of professional Italian theater that was popular throughout Europe between the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Jester or Jolly, more commonly associated as a clown mask, also comes from this theater tradition.

The Volto, or full-faced mask is a beautiful way to be in disguise, albeit less convenient— eating and drinking are impossible while wearing one of these, so you’ll have to commit to your role…

The Church turned a blind eye to the goings-on in Venice, so long as the donations from this wealthy metropolis kept rolling in. It wasn’t until after Napoleon seized power that in 1797, Carnival and mask wearing was completely forbidden.

Masks had become a part of Venetian culture, and their use continued in a much smaller, clandestine fashion for the next 200 years. Then in the 1970s, students pushed to popularize them again, and with the support of the business community and the Italian government, Carnival was resurrected in 1979.

Today, there are but a few studios in Venice creating the genuine, traditional masks and we are fortunate to have such a great selection.  If you’d like to learn more about the tradition and how the masks are made, this is an excellent short documentary on YouTube :The Fascinating History of Venice Mask Making

So who would you like to be when no one knows who you are???