College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

The Mask, Reinterpreted

By Corinne Steinbrenner

Venice is known as the City of Masks. It's widely believed that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Venetians donned fanciful masks during Carnevale to disguise their true identities, allowing them to act on impulse, free from social constraint. But in the meticulously researched Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic (University of California Press, 2011), Associate Professor of History James H. Johnson offers a different view of Venice's famous custom.

Venetians wore masks not only during Carnevale (the festive season preceding Lent), he writes, but throughout the year in their city's theaters, cafés, and public squares. In a culture built on rigid social hierarchy, the mask permitted commoners and nobles to intermingle without the expected bowing and ceremony, Johnson asserts. Masks weren't so much a disguise as a polite façade that “helped preserve hierarchy by temporarily suspending it.”

Johnson researched and wrote his book, which won the American Historical Association's 2011 George L. Mosse Prize, to explore the ways Venetians conceived of themselves, he says. Did they believe they were born with identities they could alter, or did they assume identities and stations were unchangeable? After scrutinizing the evidence of masking during the later centuries of the Venetian Republic, Johnson says, he concluded that people of that time believed “they were who they were, even with the mask.” He adds that “our own modern conceptions about the mask are connected to our modern conceptions of changing our own identity.” To assume people have always felt free to shape their identities, through their actions or through their dress, he says, is “profoundly anachronistic.”

Read more at BU Today.