Pietro Longhi, Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice, ca. 1751, National Gallery, UK
The moretta is thought to be of French origin, but it became a popular women’s mask in Venice by the seventeenth century. Usually made of black velvet, the moretta consists of a simple, oval faceplate with cutouts for the eyes but not the nose or mouth. Women secured the mask to their faces by holding a button on the inside of the moretta between their teeth! Understandably, the popularity of this mask was short-lived.
The volto is meant to be a generic face in the crowd; the word volto means “face” in Italian. The volto consists of a simple, white oval with cutouts for the eyes and nose. Traditionally, the volto was worn by Venetian citizens at Carnival time and for important feast days and events, complemented by more individualized costumes.
Commedia dell’Arte Masks
The Commedia dell’Arte emerged as a theater style in Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century, and enjoyed enormous popularity over the next two centuries. The lively stage productions took place in temporary outdoor venues, and featured humorous sketches based on stereotypical, stock characters whose roles stayed consistent even though the stories changed. Audiences recognized these stock social types as parodies of characters from various walks of life. The Commedia dell’Arte found it perfect audience among Venetians, with their love of public spectacle, costumes, and masks.
In the Commedia dell’Arte, Colombina played the role of maidservant. The Colombina is a half-mask that covers the forehead down to the cheeks, but leaves the mouth revealed. Originally, it would have been held up to the face by a baton in the hand. The Colombina is often decorated with more feminine flourishes, from gilding to gems and feathers, but both men and women may wear it.
“Big Pants” (sometimes called Il Magnifico) is a classic stage character who plays the role of father figure or another strong male lead. The Pantalone mask is characterized by a large nose, high brow, and slanted eyes.
Of the Commedia dell’Arte characters, Arlecchino, or Harlequin, is the most famous. On stage, Arlecchino appeared frequently with Pantalone as a dim-witted, mischievous, and comical counterpoint to the strong male lead. The Arlecchino mask is typically dark and characterized by a snub nose and protruding forehead. Arlecchino’s costume is immediately recognizable for its familiar diamond-shaped patterning.
Dottore or Capitano
The character of Il Dottore is a rich, pompous know-it-all, quick to share his opinions with the other stage characters. His mask typically covers only the forehead and nose, and accompanies a bulky costume to suggest his gluttonous habits.