Few masks can be considered a symbol of the Venetian carnival as much as the Baùta. The Baùta (or Baùtta) is the most characteristic and traditional disguise of the lagoon city, whose shape and history convey all the essence of the masked carnival of the Serenissima.
In fact, it should be considered that originally camouflage was not meant to exhibit a costume, but rather to make oneself unrecognizable and therefore to be able to take part in the carnival parties – but not only during carnival – without attracting attention or being recognized.
Unlike other Venetian masks, the Baùta is a unisex costume, it allows to completely disguise oneself and it also distorts one’s voice. At the same time, it allows eating and drinking without unmasking. The Baùta takes its name from a cape used as a surcoat that had the purpose of covering the chest, shoulders and head in order to hide one’s identity.
Thanks to the perfect anonymity it guaranteed, the Baùta began to spread around the 16th century, and soon it became a real status symbol, employed by nobles and commoners alike, precisely in order to blend in with each other. As a result, many laws were also promulgated aimed at regulating its use. Although it was the most tolerated mask during the year, its use was limited depending on the places, the profession carried out, the time of the day or the circumstances. For example, it was forbidden in gambling places and brothels, it was forbidden in public for croupiers and prostitutes, it was allowed only after noon and forbidden at night, and it was forbidden during the plagues. At the same time, it became almost an obligation to use the Baùta in ceremonies and public holidays, in wine shops (malvasie), for women who went to the theater or to take advantage of the carnival licenses under anonymity.
The complete costume called “Baùta” includes the mask, the “zendal”, the “tricorn”, and the “tabarro”. The costume has the dual purpose of completely covering the figure and thus hiding into the crowd thanks to the most popular clothing of the time.
The mask, initially called “larva” or “face”, and then Bauta by extension, is made of plaster, leather or papier-mâché and it covers three quarters of the face leaving the chin uncovered. It was originally completely black, then its white version become popular too.
The “zendal” is a shawl that covered the head, shoulders and chest of the ladies, with a hole for the face. It spread in Venice in the 17th century, according to the fashion of women at the court of the Shah of Persia (hence the later name “shawl”). Placed under the “tricorn”, the popular three-pointed hat, the “zendal” makes a person completely unrecognizable, which is why it soon became popular among men as well.
Finally, the black “tabarro”, a long and heavy cloak in circular shape, had more than one advantage: in addition to protecting from the cold, it standardized social classes since it was a low-class garment and it allowed to hide too sumptuous clothes, which nobles then exhibited at private parties once the overcoat was removed. In this regard, it is interesting to remember that the government of the Serenissima Republic was endowed with a “magistrate at the pomp”, in charge of regulating the pomp of Venetian families to avoid waste of money, given that their wealth was the wealth of the city.
The fact that it is impossible to know who is hiding behind a Baùta soon made it a due and courteous act to greet every mask with the respect and deference reserved for nobles, usually with the salute “Sióra maschera, la riverisco” (Nobel mask, you have my respect). And this is probably the more striking example of how the carnival disguises uniformed Venetian society for a few months a year, allowing the nobles to indulge safely in the most popular behaviors and places and the poor to taste the life of the great lords.