Masters of Masquerade

As we simultaneously prepare for Halloween and the opening weekend of Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power from the Kunsthisorisches Museum, Vienna (which opens tomorrow, October 29), what better topic to kick off the festivities than a post about the sumptuous tradition of masquerade?

Paris Bordone. Allegory of Mars, Venus and Cupid

Paris Paschalinus Bordone. Allegory of Mars, Venus and Cupid. ca. 1560. Oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The 16th century was not a particularly peaceful period, either in Europe where the Protestant Reformation threatened the longstanding traditions of Catholicism, nor abroad where world powers jockeyed for domination over regions of the recently encountered New World. The Republic of Venice, on the other hand, stood out as an example of political stability and industrious commercial enterprise. This relative peace and prosperity earned Venice the title La Serenissima, in reference to the republic’s mythical serenity.

Accordingly, Venice’s ruling elite utilized pageantry and masquerade to reinforce this message of political stolidity, religious purity, and social harmony. Perhaps the most intriguing of these performative traditions was the masquerade ball.

The Masked Ball

Jean-Jacques Flipart (French, 1719–1782), after Pietro Longhi (Italian, 1702–1785), Di degno Cavalier tenera Moglie (The Masked Ball), 18th century. Etching and engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1952.37

The wearing of masks was allowed periodically throughout the year, most notably during Carnival in the early winter. One such mask-wearing season took place between October 5 and Christmas, dates which coincide largely with our current exhibition!

Masquerade was not solely relegated to revelry, but was rather integrated into all aspects of Venetian life. The bauta mask, which completely concealed the face, was often used during certain political referenda to ensure citizens’ anonymity when casting votes.

Bal Masque�

Follower of Pietro Longhi (Italian, 1702–1785), Bal Masque, 18th century. Oil on canvas. Gift of Lily Carstairs. 1952.62

The widespread prevalence of the masquerade provided Venetian mask makers (or mascherari) with an elevated position in society. The mascherari were members of their own guild and even had their own set of laws.

Although La Serenissima promoted an image of social harmony, Venice was in reality ordered by a highly stratified societal structure. In keeping with contemporary rhetoric equating exterior beauty with interior virtue, outward appearance was everything.

Pietro Longhi (Italian, 1702–1785), A Theatrical Performance, 18th century. Oil on canvas. Gift of Kathryn Bache Miller. 1964.72

The frequent opportunities for citizens to wear masks allowed individuals to shed their true identity or social status. By appropriating different personalities, Venetians mitigated social restrictions and gained a greater sense of freedom (if only for an evening).

So tonight, don your best beguiling mask and inhabit your most outrageous alter ego for the de Young’s masquerade ball! Don't have a mask? Make your own with our teaching artists at the hands-on art-making table. The tricksters of Velocity Circus will maraud through the crowd while the melodic sounds of City Opera SF waft through the air. Don't miss what is sure to be a memorable evening!

Masters of Venice: Painters of Passion and Power from the Kunsthisorisches Museum, Vienna is on view October 29, 2011–February 12, 2012.