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The Masks of Venice

Like glass blowing, the craft of mask making achieved the status of art in Venice. In the time of the Republic, Venetians wore masks all year, every day to go about town incognito. In 1268, laws regulating the use of masks in Venice were introduced. They were to prevent masked men disguised as women from entering convents to seduce nuns. In 1436 the mascareri (mask makers) founded their guild and in the 18th century, masks were used by actors playing the traditional roles of the commedia dell'arte. Today, inexpensive papier-mâché versions of these masks can be found everywhere.
 
The character Arlecchino has the round face and surprised expression, Pantalone has the curved nose and long mustache, and Pulcinella has the protruding nose. The white Bauta, smooth and plain with a short, pointed nose was intended to disguise the wearer's voice; in the 18th century it was commonly accompanied by a black three-cornered hat and a black cloak. The pretty Gnaga, which resembles a cat's face, was used to "meow" proposals to good-looking boys. The basic Moretta is a black oval with eyeholes. The Medico della Peste (the Plague Doctor) has a beak-like nose and glasses; during the plague of 1630 and 1631, doctors wore masks with herbs inside the nose intended to filter infected air and glasses to protect the eyes.
 
Sadly, after Napoleon's invasion of Venice in 1797, the use of masks was suppressed as part of an effort to end Carnevale. It was only in the late 1970s when Carnevale was revived, that masks and mask making returned to Venice. Today, masks are one of the best souvenirs from Venice, but Venetian workshops, even though they use centuries-old techniques, have been in business for less than 30 years.

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