“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Oscar Wilde
Masks have been used throughout history and around the world for entertainment, protection and disguise and in rituals. The oldest surviving mask in the world a stone mask from the pre-ceramic Neolithic period from 7,000 BC found in modern day Israel, although the use of masks probably dates back longer.
The use of masks in ancient Greek theater finds its origins in the worship of the god of the grape harvest, Dionysus. These masks have not survived since they were made of organic materials. The only evidence showing the masks consists of vase paintings from the 5th century BC.
The masks looked like helmets and covered the entire face and head, with holes for the eyes and mouth. The word for mask was persona, emphasizing the fact that the actor would completely blend it with his character. The masks added resonance to the voice of the actor enhancing vocal acoustics. The facial features and expressions of the masks were exaggerated so the precise nature of the character could also be seen from a distance. In the plays there were only three actors, so the masks made it possible for them to play different characters.
Masks were an integral part of Venetian culture and everyday life for a long time. Venice had a high standard of living with everyone enjoying the lifestyle. People didn´t want others to see what one was doing since the city was relatively small, so wearing masks was a very practical thing. Furthermore, it had a social purpose of seeing every citizen as equal. But by concealing their identities, the society became more decadent.
By the 18th century masks were only allowed to be worn between Santo Stefano (December 26) and the start of the carnival season on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.
Nowadays masks in Venice are only worn during carnival. Venetian masks fall into two categories: Commedia dell´Arte masks and Carnival masks.
The first ones date back to the second half of the 16th century and represent traditions, professions, characters and trades related to different cities in Italy, as personified by actors in the Commedia dell´Arte. Examples of these masks are the columbina (half-mask), the pulcinella (hunchback who chases women; the mask has a nose resembling a beak) and the arlechchino (most popular comic servant character).
Carnival masks were worn on many occasions when people dressed up. Examples of Carnival masks are the bauta (covers the entire face), the moretta/servetta muta (small strapless black velvet oval mask), the volto (white mask covering the whole face with a black ribbon on the back) and the dottore peste (plague doctor). The last one has a long beak, which was originally a sanitary precaution while treating plague victims.
I would love to write more about masks and their uses, but since all around the globe masks have been used for so many different purposes, it would be too much to cover in just one blog.
1. a cover or partial cover for the face used for disguise
2. something that serves to conceal or disguise
3. a protective covering for the face
4. the head or face of an animal (source: Merriam Webster).
The English mask comes from Middle French masque, covering to hide or guard the face, from Italian maschera, mask, from Medieval Latin masca, witch/spectre, maybe from Arabic مَسْخَرَۃٌ, maskharah, buffoon/mockery, from sakhira, be mocked/ridiculed.
It could also come from Provençal mascarar, to blacken (the face). Or another source claims it comes from Spanish más que la cara, more than the face, which became máscara.
Dutch mask, Spanish mascara and Italian maschera all have the same origins.
Mask in other languages:
Spanish: la máscara
Italian: la maschera