Commedia Dell’Arte is a popular form of improvisational theatre, which began in Italy during the 15th century, maintaining its popularity through to the present day

The outdoor performances, funded by donations, were improvised around a repertory of conventional situations: adultery, jealousy, old age & love, with dialogue and action adjusted to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, mixed with ancient jokes and punch lines

Many of the characters were portrayed by actors wearing masks — including the witty gentleman’s valet Harlequin; the Venetian merchant Pantelone; the honest and simpleminded servant Pierrot; the maidservant Columbina; the unscrupulous servant Scaramouche, and the braggart Capitano.

Gold Venetian Swan Masks with feathers in blue on model face


Long considered the traditional and archetypal Venetian mask, the Bauta always used to appear in white, and even though it was worn extensively throughout the Carnival period it owes much of its prominence to the fact that it was used all year round by those simply wishing to hide their identity. It was also a comparatively practical mask, since, lacking a mouth and covering only the upper half of the face, it enabled masqueraders to eat and talk more freely


Originating in France but achieving a wider popularity in Venice, the Moretta was an oval mask layered with black velvet and worn almost exclusively by women. Often complemented by a similarly black veil, it covered the entire face and required the wearer to clasp a small bit between their teeth to keep it secure. This prevented the wearer from talking, yet such muteness tended to add to the mask’s enigmatic allure


Meaning ‘ghost’ and ‘face’ respectively, this was a white mask of fine wax cloth with a protruding topology that gave it a three-dimensional, beaklike appearance when viewed from the side. It was therefore more comfortable to wear than other varieties, and its simple design, usually accompanied by a three-cornered hat and cloak so as to increase the aura of mystery, made it a very common feature of the Carnival over the centuries


Popularised by a recurring character in the commedia dell’arte by the same name (also known as Columbine or Columbina), the Columbina is a modern half mask adorned with an ornate variety of Jewels, feathers and fabrics. Often painted in gold or silver, it was held in place by either a tied ribbon or a baton. It is said that the Colombina mask was designed for an actress who did not want her beautiful face covered


Pierrot is a naïve, lunatic clown, outside reality, unaware of the outside world, always being cheated and joked on by the others
Despite suspicions about things, Pierrot always end up trusting people and believing in their lies. A stock character of pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte


Meaning ‘cat’ in Italian, the Gatto is unsurprisingly shaped like the face of a cat, with the characteristic pointy ears, narrow eyes and button nose. Perhaps more surprising is that it owes its genesis to the scarcity of cats in Venice during the days of the Republic, indicating that felines were prized above other species of domestic animal on account of their rarity


Colombina is a maidservant and the lover of Arlecchino. She dressed in a ragged and patched dress, similar to her counterpart Arlecchino (or Harlequin). There is no historic evidence that she wore a mask instead she was known to wear heavy makeup around her eyes and carry a tambourine which she could use to fend off the amorous advances of Pantalone. A flirtatious and impudent character, who never loses her judgment


Similarly christened after a character from the commedia and also known for covering only the upper half of the face, the Scaramuccia was a black velvet mask distinctive for the thin, pointed and disproportionately extended nose that served to emphasize the character’s typically vainglorious yet cowardly personality. A roguish adventurer and swordsman who replaced Il Capitano in later troupes, he usually serves a master who is not of a high social scale.


Named after arguably the most popular Zanni (a group of comic servant characters) in the commedia dell’Arte, the Arlecchino is a more reassuringly human variety of mask, traditionally worn in black (over time became available in other colours) and featuring a realistically proportioned snub nose that doesn’t look like something out of a nightmare. Somewhat more odd however was the customary red blemish on the forehead, a feature which, resembling a boil, accentuated the character’s lowly status as well as his peculiarity.

Arlecchino (Harlequin) is identified by the famous Harlequin costume, with its multicoloured diamond pattern of red, green, and blue – representing clothes that are so old and patche d as to have lost their original colour and material. He is a slow thinker who has a love interest in the servant girl Columbina, his lust for her only superseded by his desire for food or fear of his master


Widely believed to be the origin of Punch from Punch & Judy, the character of Pulcinella also gave birth to his own mask. It was usually black, often accompanied by loose-fitting white overalls, and featuring a more restrained variety of hooked nose that, while undoubtedly oversized, still kept a vestige of anthropomorphism

Pulcinella or Punch started out as an idiot simpleton servant, who developed into a complex , cunning character. This poor love-struck hunchback eventually became the model for the English variation – ‘Punch and Judy’. Pulcinella was witty and crafty character but also full of common sense. He has loose and straggly hair, and a huge, warped belly. Todays nose masks come in various disguises, Scaramouche, Nasone and Capitano or Captain


Another half-mask with a ghoulishly exaggerated nose, Dottore Peste differs from the Scaramouch in that its nose is conventionally not only wider but also curved downwards like beak, and whereas the latter mask covers the cheekbones, the Plague Doctor only covers the forehead. Its name and peculiar form originates from the 16th Century and the unusual practices of a French physician by the name of Charles de Lorme, who would wear a full face mask with a hollow beak while treating plague sufferers.

The Doctor is the local aristocrat, and/or doctor of medicine or law or anything else he claims to know about, which is most things. Extremely rich, he adores food and good wines, thus he is a little round. He is typically depicted as an elderly man who only knows nonsense. He makes many cruel jokes about the opposite sex and believes that he knows everything about everything. His costume is usually all or mostly black, sometimes with a white collar. He frequently wears a hat, and long, trailing robes

Nowadays there are many different names given to masks by the Venetian artisans since the commercialization of the Masked Ball. These masks are made with more elaborate decoration such as gold leaf, gems and feathers

Click here to see all “Venetian Mask Characters” and select your mask by name from the sub-menu