Maybe you’re wondering what I mean by “prosopon ”, don’t you? Okay, then. The word comes from ancient Greek and it has several translations. It is translated as “person” but actually, its original meaning is “face” or “mask”. As you can guess, it’s derived from Greek theatre whose two famous masks are still alive and are the universal symbols of theatre. They are known as the “Tragedy & Comedy” masks named after the two ancient Greek muses, i.e. Melpomene (the muse of tragedy) and Thalia (the muse of comedy)
Later in ancient Roman times people made wax masks which were used as portraits. These masks helped sculptors a lot as they were somehow a “model” for preparing bronze and marble sculptures.
During the centuries masks “developed” and the so-called posthumous or death masks were popular especially among celebrities like Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Tasso, Voltaire, Brunelleschi and many others. The method of making these masks was as follows. The dead body was laid with the face up and the face was coated with olive oil. Then a plaster layer was laid on it covering the mouth, nose and eyelid, i.e. everything from the hair to the neck. After it hardened, the plaster layer was removed and was used as a ready mold in which another plaster layer was added. After having hardened, it turned into a true copy (replica) of the dead man.
Plague used to be a very common disease in the past and it struck the Old Continent severely on several occasions. Its spread had a fatal consequence over millions of people since medicine was not so developed as it is now. Doctors of those times who fought with plague did their best to help their patients but in the first place, they had to protect themselves. For this reason they were strangely dressed up in plague doctor costumes whose most frightening part was the bird mask that resembled a beak. A plague doctor mask was hard and was made of cloth. It resembled a beak, as I said, because birds were thought to be the ones that spread out the illness. The common belief was that wearing such a sort of mask could have a reverse effect against plague. But, as a matter of fact, the real reason for doctors was to keep their nose and face far away from the contagious air as much as they could in order to avoid contracting the disease. These masks are still used at the Carnival of Venice.
And, yes, of course, Venetian masks that are always associated with the most romantic town in the world, i.e. Venice, and its Carnival. Actually, a great number of masks originate from “Commedia dell’arte” masks. Just a few words about that type of improvisational Italian theatre that existed between the 16th and 18th century. These were travelling troupes of artists, acrobats and actors of humorous plays. Their plays had rough storylines and well-known and established protagonists like Arlecchino, Burrattino, Capitan Scaramouche, Colombina, Pantalone, Pierrot, Zanni and some others.
And now let’s get back to the traditional Venetian masks, richly decorated and brightly coloured, that are worn during the Carnival as well as they are widely sold out as souvenirs throughout Venice (and not only). These masks are either whole-face (such as Bauta) or half masks (such as Columbina). On the other hand, other masks are elegantly decorated with pieces of jewel (Dama mask), or go together with brightly colored clothing (Jester/Jolly/Joker mask; the mask is known under different names), or they look like a cat (Gatto mask). Apart from them, there are masks that are worn all the year round (the black velvet oval mask called Moretta) or on holidays like San Marco’s Day, for example (Volto or also known as Citizen mask).