It´s the end of February, so it´s carnival time again! The city par excellence to celebrate this dress up festival is Venice. The Venice Carnival not only lasts for two weeks, people dress extravagantly for the duration of it too. The face mask is the eye-catcher of their outfit.

The Chessmen Museum has a game in its collection that consists of ornate Venetian carnival masks. The set is part of the Rademaker Collection. Carnival is a good time to have a look at the history of the festival and its masks.

Plague mask

The special shape of the masks -it´s as though they have a beak- is modelled on the mask that the plague doctors (medico della peste) wore when taking care of plague victims. There were occasional bouts of this deadly disease in Europe between the 14th and the 19th century.  The plague also made a lot of victims in Venice. Nowadays, we suspect that the first major plague epidemic reached the Italian port city from Asia, via the Silk Road, and spread out over the rest of Europe from there. The plague would kill a third of the European population in the 14th century.

The plague doctors wore protective clothing, which the mask was part of. It was thought that the plague spread through the air and the plague doctors put air-purifying herbs in the beak of their masks. The design of the carnival masks is based on the plague masks and they still have a connection with death. In the spring, the Venetians celebrated the victory over winter, and with it, the victory over death. It was thought that the souls of the deceased also came to party, and in order to hide from these spirits, the living wore masks. The word for mask, maschera, is derived from maska, which not only means mask but also refers to the souls in the underworld.


The predecessor of the Venetian carnival is the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which itself is also a melting pot of older celebrations. During Saturnalia, slaves and their masters traded places. The Romans also wore masks and costumes. Many of the men would walk the streets dressed in women’s clothes. Women themselves enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom during the festivities and social classes did not exist either, if only for a while. This pagan festival probably made its way to the rest of Europe with the expansion of the Roman Empire.

The Romans were no strangers to boozing and frolicking during Saturnalia. Bacchanals enlivened this feast that was dedicated to the god of agriculture Saturn. The Romans honoured their god of wine Bacchus with songs, performances and lots of wine, naturally. During Saturnalia, they wore masks which also had a connection with death. The Romans copied this tradition from the Greeks.  The Greeks celebrated a fancy dress festival around the same time of the year. Frightening masks were worn to chase away the souls of the deceased that came to visit.  The reversed roles of masters and slaves also date back to earlier times in history: the oldest record of the role play are the Babylonian festivals in the third millennium BC.

The church´s contribution

In the days when the pagan people of Europe converted to Christianism, the church adopted many of their celebrations and put a Christian twist on them. Although the Catholic Church was far from happy with the festivities that mocked ecclesiastical and bourgeois rulers, they were included in the Saturnalia celebrations. The church failed to ban the holiday and it ended up being a part of the church calendar and liturgy. The current name of the celebration probably comes from carrus navalis: a ship on wheels that participated in the pagan parades to celebrate the end of winter.

Once it was a Christian holiday, the clergy joined in the reversing of the hierarchy. In many churches, the choir boys and lower clergy took the place of the dignitaries. They would offer the Mass and the sermon in a comical manner and with a healthy dose of cursing. In France, they even appointed a pape de fous (Pope of Fools). Later reformers would condemn these practices. Philosopher Erasmus called the carnival ‘unchristian’ as well. He had been present at the festivities in Siena in 1509 and had not liked them at all because of the ‘traces of ancient paganism’ and because ‘people surrender too much to debauchery’.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

Carnival had always been a popular holiday among the people but the authorities were not always happy with it. They tried to ban it, because masked thieves and street robbers could easily blend in with the crowd and remain unpunished. Drunken troublemakers were also a thorn in their side, but they were particularly offended by the individuals who dressed like savages, transvestites, animals or devils.

It was only after the Reformation that the Protestants succeeded in banning the carnival, when they were in the majority or in power. They would then abolish Lent and only celebrate Easter, which is what happened in the Netherlands, for example. It was not until the second half of the 19th century, when the Roman Catholics were no longer second-class citizens, that the festival was slowly recovered.

Felinni film

In Venice, the carnival reached its peak in the 17th and 18th centuries, with a display of grandeur and decadence unprecedented in Europe. But the Austrian occupation brought an end to the carnival celebrations, until 1866. When the occupation came to an end, carnival celebrations were resumed! But fascist dictator Mussolini banned it again at the time of the Second World War.

The former extravagant holidays had actually faded into oblivion until 1973, when Italian filmmaker Fellini released his film Casanova. The story takes place during the Venice Carnival. The film caused a revival of the carnival festivities Venice style, with masks and the works. Nowadays, the carnival in Venice goes on for almost 3 weeks, instead of our usual 3 days, and the festival attracts (dressed up) visitors from all over the world. The highlight of the festivities is the procession of the decorated gondolas. These gondolas are still painted black, in memory of the plague from days long past.

Fortunately, you do not have to travel all the way to Venice to admire the stylish carnival masks. They are right here on display in the Chessmen Museum, standing magnificently on their matching pedestals.

By Marjolein Overmeer