Earlier this week, millions of people around the world participated in Carnival, or Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday"), celebrations—with major festivities occurring from Venice to Rio De Janeiro to New Orleans. In the following excerpt from Faces around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Human Face, Margo DeMello explores masks, a key cultural component of Carnival customs.
Masking during parades and masquerade parties are among the most important elements of Mardi Gras or Carnival celebrations. One of the reasons that masks have long been an important part of such rituals is because they conceal one’s identity; they allow revelers to safely celebrate, as well as mock their social superiors, without fear of reprisal. Because of this, Venice, home to one of Europe’s most ancient Carnivals, has seen a number of laws passed over time that sought to restrict the wearing of masks. In other locations, the wearing of masks is prohibited throughout the year, with the one exception being during Carnival celebrations. The Carnival celebration of another Italian town, Viareggio, is known for the use of masks that caricature well-known local figures.
The tradition of wearing masks during Carnival celebrations may date back to Greek and Roman theater, during which actors wore masks that allowed the audience to see them better. This tradition may have spread throughout the Roman Empire to Venice and other regions that later borrowed the use of the masks for their own celebrations. On the other hand, pre-Christian festivals in Europe may have also utilized masks, which could have gotten incorporated into the newer, Christian festivals.
Carnival masks differ with the region. In Germany, where Fastnacht is celebrated, people dress up as demons and witches, because the winter is the time when evil spirits reign; one of the goals of the celebration is to cast out those spirits and bring in the Spring. Many Latin American celebrations feature revelers dressed up as the devil as well. In some areas of Portugal, children wear tin masks, while other Portuguese celebrations feature revelers wearing large heads sculpted from papier-mâché. In Slovenia, carved, wooden masks are featured. Another European Carnival, celebrated in Malta, includes a grotesque mask competition. Many Carnivals include black-or white-tie masquerade balls during which all guests are masked. In the Cadiz region of Spain, on the other hand, revelers don’t wear masks, but instead paint their faces with lipstick.
In Venice, which has been hosting Carnival celebrations since the 13th century, masks have long been a central component of the celebrations. Venetian masks either cover the full face—these are known as Bauta masks—or they cover just the eyes and nose; these are known as Columbina masks. In addition, until the 18th century when it was prohibited, full face masks were worn in Venice during times when members of different classes wanted to socialize with each other, or when individuals were engaging in illegal or illicit activities. They were also worn during political events when anonymity was required. Another Venetian mask is the Medico della Peste. This mask is characterized by the long nose or beak, and was once worn by doctors treating plague victims, in order to protect them from airborne diseases.
In North American Mardi Gras celebrations, as in Mobile or New Orleans, krewes or mystic societies are social organizations that operate year round and play a central role in the Mardi Gras festivities by creating Mardi Gras floats and throwing parties. During the parades, society or krewe members wear masks and throw beads or gifts, and later, attend the balls wearing formal wear and masks, as in the European masquerade balls. Key colors to be found on Mardi Gras masks are green, gold, and purple, and like Venetian masks, these are often elaborately decorated with feathers, beads, and jewels.
Margo DeMello has a BA in Religious Studies from U.C. Berkeley and earned her PhD in Cultural Anthropology in 1995 from U.C. Davis. She currently lectures at Central New Mexico Community College, teaching sociology, cultural studies, and anthropology.