Masquerade Balls: A History

by Karen

Masquerade Balls: A History


Everyone can picture a masquerade ball - a palatial party where women and men dress to the nines and pair their exquisite attire with unforgettable masks that cover all or part of their face. Equal parts refined and mysterious, there’s something truly enchanting about masquerade balls. They are one night where it feels like you can truly transform into someone else effortlessly. 


Although everyone has seen images of masquerade balls, very few know the complex origins of this type of party. There are even events today that channel the decadence, charm, and over-the-top nature of these stylish parties. This blog post will cover the history of masquerade balls and give you plenty of ideas when it comes to hosting your own mysterious masked soiree. 


Early History


Masquerade balls first originated in the 15th century during what is known “Carnival Season.” Carnival is a Christian tradition that originated around the year 1200. This festive season occurred annually during February or early March - immediately before Lent. 


Because Lent was a season of solemn and sacrificial religious observation, Carnival was a time when people indulged in the things that they were required to give up during the Lenten period. This meant that they drank liquor, ate meat, and consumed buttery desserts excessively. 


This time of celebration also involved elaborate public displays like parades, festivals, and outdoor parties. These decadent parties also included people dressing in costumes and masks - a tradition that became more and more elaborate as time went on. It’s from these Carnival costume parties that masquerade balls first originated. 


One of the very first masquerade balls was the "Bal des Ardents" or “The Burning Men’s Ball,” which was held in 1393. This ball was a costume party thrown by Charles VI of France to celebrate a high-profile marriage that took place in his kingdom. The celebration included men wearing elaborate costumes made from flammable materials - if the men danced carelessly near a torch, they ran the risk of starting on fire. 


By the 15th century, masquerade balls were a fixture of royal society in parts of Europe with a large Christian population. During the 16th century Renaissance in Italy, masquerade balls became an important fixture in high-society. But there was no place that they were more popular than the Italian city of Venice.   


Although they originated much earlier, Venetian masquerade balls became an important tradition during the 16th and 17th centuries. Members of the aristocracy enjoyed decadent parties during Venetian Carnival, where they would dress in elaborate costume and hide their identity behind beautiful, glittering masks. Although these lavish events became obsolete after the fall of the Venetian Republic in the 18th Century, masquerade balls and elaborate masks are still an important symbol of Venetian history. 


Why Wear A Mask?


Masks were incredibly beautiful, but they weren’t purely worn for adornment. They were genuinely meant to conceal the identity of the person wearing it. To make Carnival parties even more exciting - and perhaps a bit more scandalous - masks created somewhat of a game for the guests in attendance. People were meant to guess who was behind the mask, which added an extra layer of fun to the already raucous event. Pair this with the fact that everyone was wearing increasingly elaborate costumes or disguises and you have a fun, slightly mysterious event where no one was sure who the person that they were dancing with truly was.  


Although they were first worn just for decoration, they eventually played an important societal role as well. Towards the end of the 18th century, Italians used masquerades to blur the lines between different social classes. Everyone’s identity being hidden behind a mask allowed for a refreshing sense of equality among those in attendance.  


Types of Traditional Masquerade Masks


When it comes to the facial coverings worn by Venetians during their carnival, there are 7 different types of traditional masquerade masks. They include:


- Columbina


The Columbina is a type of mask that covers the wearer’s eyes, cheeks, and nose. They are often heavily decorated with jewels, feathers, intricate trim, and other adornment. Originally named after characters in Italian theatre, these types of masks are typically worn by women only.


- Bauta


The Bauta is an inherently masculine mask. The sharp edges and square jawline make it ideal for any traditionalist. Although Bautas adorned with intricate metalwork were worn at festive masquerade balls, plain versions of this mask also disguised the identity of Italian politicians during periods of voting or decision-making. It’s also surprisingly practical - the bottom of the mask points away from the wearer’s face so that his mouth is free to talk, drink, and eat.   


- Volto


The Volto is a mask that covers the wearers entire face. Worn by both men and women, the three-dimensional nature of the nose and mouth made it a surprisingly comfortable option. It’s also traditionally paired with a three-cornered hat. This style was incredibly popular at Carnival masquerades; it keeps the wearer’s identity completely hidden from others. 


- Arlecchino


The Arlecchino is also known as the Harlequin mask. Incredibly colorful, these masks were often attached to large headpieces or elaborate collars. Their appearance is iconic, clown-like, and larger than life. Anyone who wore this mask played the part of the joker, and was expected to wear patched clothing that was adorned with bells. 


- Dottore Peste


This instantly recognizable mask is a famous symbol of Venetian masquerades. This half-mask features eye-holes as well as a large, beak-like protrusion at the nose. It is also known as the “Plague Doctor” mask, as a French physician named Charles de Lorme wore this type of mask when treating plague patients in the 16thcentury. The exaggerated features make this design both surprising and unsettling. 


- Pulcinella


A mask that is similar - although not identical - to the “Dottore Peste” mask is the Pulcinella. This type of mask is similar to the Columbina in the way that it only covers the wearer’s eyes. Attached is a slightly curved “beak” at the nose area. This mask is usually dark in color with very little adornment or decoration. Traditionally it is worn with loose-fitting black overalls. 


- Pierrot


The Pierrot is another full-coverage mask that is similar to the Arlecchino. This white, clown-like mask is representative of another character from Italian theatre. Because it is all-white in color, it is reminiscent of a traditional pantomime’s face. 


Masquerades In Art


Masquerade balls are central figures in several different types of popular art. The most historic is William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, in which the title characters first cross paths at an Italian masquerade ball. They appear once again in a work by Edgar Allen Poe entitled “The Mask Of Red Death,” a haunting short story about a man that attends a masquerade ball. But perhaps the most popular cultural reference to masquerade masks is “The Phantom Of The Opera,” where the mysterious main character wears an iconic mask that covers half of his face. 


Masquerades In The Modern Era


It’s easy to assume that masquerade balls have all but disappeared in the modern era. However, a closer look at contemporary events reveals that the influences of masquerades are alive and well. 


Mardi Gras


Mardi Gras is a New Orleans tradition that takes place every spring before the Lenten season. A modern adaption of “Carnival,” masks are an important symbol of this event. Today, most people are unaware that Mardi Gras has religious origins, and use it as an excuse to gather, drink, and partake in general debauchery. Still, even these traditions aren’t a far cry from the ideals that Carnival was originally founded upon. 


Save Venice Ball


Every year, members of the Manhattan elite assemble to attend a masquerade ball known as “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Hosted by Save Venice - an organization committed to preserving Venice’s artistic heritage - this social event is a tribute to elegant masquerade balls that were once held in the Italian city hundreds of years ago. Like most events of this caliber in New York City, there is a huge focus on fashion. It’s a night where actors, models, socialites, and other upper-crust society members wear designer dresses and pair them with gorgeous masquerade masks. 


Throwing Your Own Masquerade Party


If you’re looking to throw a party that is unlike any other, consider hosting your very own masquerade ball. You are more than welcome to have a traditional theme that mirrors renaissance Italy, however there are plenty of ways to modernize this event as well. Holding a Roaring Twenties masquerade takes two exquisite time periods and brings them together flawlessly. 


When it comes to attire, ditch silly costumes and opt instead for sharp suited looks and beautiful, glittering cocktail dresses. And instead of traditional masks, try a more modern take on this ritual. A contemporary mask that covers the lower-half of your face, for example, is exactly the opposite of a traditional masquerade mask - but still manages to reflect the beauty and elegance of the overall theme. A feathered headpiece is another way to bring traditional elements into a more modern overall look. 


masquerade masks balls


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