The Bauta – History and Myths of this Iconic Venetian Mask

08 Feb 2020

three harlequin style Bauta masks

The Bauta - an old design that is popular today

The Bauta mask is one of the oldest Venetian mask designs but, contrary to popular belief, it is not one of the Commedia Dell’Arte stock characters.

History and Myths

The Bauta has a checkered history with claims that it was worn to hide class, gender, or to frighten children. There are even claims that the Venetian government regulated the Bauta mask. One thing not in question is, between the 16th & 18th Century, it served an important social purpose of keeping all citizens of Venice on an equal playing field, giving those, who required it, a voice without a face!

The claims about it being used to hide class, and social status, appear to come from the fact that the Bauta was frequently worn by the upper classes, including Kings and Princes, in Venetian society. Those not part of the upper classes would don this mask and interact freely with those from a different class, enabling servants to be mistaken for noblemen.

Unlike most of Europe during this time, the Republic of Venice was an economic machine and most were enjoying a high standard of living. With Venice being a small city, there were people of all classes with things to do, people to see, and not everyone wanted others to know the deals they were cutting, whether it was good or bad

The Bauta was also useful for the unscrupulous criminal, who could hide in plain sight. On the other hand, it was also useful for the Venetian police and spies to question informers, traitors, and even ordinary citizens, under the cover of the mask, without the fear of their true identity being revealed.

The claims it was worn to hide gender is definitely shown through history. This mask was originally only allowed to be worn by men but there are many historical paintings and antique prints of women wearing this mask, suggesting that women were, on occasions, behind this mask, and interacting in a predominately male environment. The richer women in society, who weren’t hiding their gender, would wear the Bauta to cover their jewellery as Venetian law, at this time, prohibited luxury.

As the city descended into a place of gambling and sexual promiscuity the Bauta became a useful veil for romantic encounters. As a result of it becoming acceptable to conceal your identity people, naturally, found themselves taking advantage of the situation with women’s clothing becoming more revealing and homosexuality, whilst publicly condemned, became embraced by the Venetians

It is thought the name Bauta comes from the Italian word “Bau” or “Babau” which is the Italian word for monster. This is, almost certainly, where the story of the mask being used to frighten children comes from. The Italians had a saying “Se non stai bravo viene il babau e ti porto via” translated as “If you're not good, the monster will come and take you away”  

What is recorded in history is that the Venetian government made it obligatory to wear the Bauta when making political decisions because all citizens were required to act anonymously when acting as peers at political decision making events.

Towards the end of the Republic rule the wearing of masks became restricted and by the end of the 18th Century it was limited to only three months of the year, starting on 26th December.

The mask and it's simplicity

The Bauta is a fairly square mask and covers the whole face, offering complete anonymity to the wearer, but unlike the Volto mask, has the added advantage of a prominent nose and, beak like, protruding chin meaning you can eat, drink and talk without removing the mask, thus keeping your identity intact.

Originally, this mask would only be seen in plain white but has become more elaborate in design over the centuries. If you visit Venice during the carnival season, you will see that this is the main type of mask worn, along with elaborate Venetian costumes or classic Italian masquerade dresses.

If you are going to a modern day masquerade ball this mask is usually chosen by men. Go for an elaborate design for an upmarket ball or, if full fancy dress is the order of the day, the white version of this mask can be worn with a long cloak, called a Mantle, and a black three cornered hat, known as a Tricorn hat.

Perfect if you are going to a black and white ball or are looking for a Halloween costume to scare the kids!!

If you are going to the Venice carnival or have been invited to a masquerade ball then you cannot go wrong with this Venetian mask named Bauta

Tracy Chandler Blog profile picture

By: Tracy Chandler

Tracy has been in the masquerade industry for over 15 years.

As an expert crafter, she spends her time sourcing, and buying, Posh Masks designs from the Venetian artisans in Venice, along with researching, and compiling, news, views, ideas, and advice on Venetian mask history and design, the modern day masquerade party and the fancy dress world of Cosplay

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