From the fact that the Venecians never abandoned the use of the Bauta until the Austrians marched in and changed politics and culture, we know that there probably never was too much misuse of the society mask to give it up. That’s a little mystery, because having the chance to act anonymously always creates temptations to act in an antisocial, egoistic way. M.E. Kabay for example, with respect to deindividuation theories, points out that the deindividuation factor of practical anonymity may foster incivility, dishonesty and a more aggressive behavior and that it may lower self-reflective propensities (see sources to find his essay).
I already mentioned that one of the reasons why the Venecians only had to cope with a tolerable degree of misused anonymity was the fact that bearers of the Bauta did not escape society rules and expectations and that they could be practically unmasked if necessary. But this measure certainly only was used as a last resource. Another reason why citizens adhered to good manners when wearing the mask certainly was that when they put it on, they changed their existence to the role model of an ideal member of the noble citizenship.
Picture Source: Fotolia.com, Gloria Guglielmo
The role of “Signora Maschera” not only was to be characterized as generic and predefined, as I mentioned before, it also meant to reduce personal characteristics and to play up the qualities of the noble patrician as an idealized model. There are certainly parallels to old ideas of the “perfect gentleman” with his perfect style and manners. From Karbe and Toscani (see sources) we know that Venecians wearing the Bauta explicitly behaved politely and chivalrously when wearing the Bauta and that they even tried to move and communicate in a most elegant way.
Over the centuries Venetian lifestyle has been stigmatized as hedonistic and unethical. For strangers, especially carnival and the fact that so many citizens wore masks gave reason for suspicion. Someone who wears a mask has something to hide, they thought, and what else would a person want to hide than something felonious or unethical?
Mario Belloni today finds a way to say it more friendly, but the basic rating of Venetian culture still is the same: ‘They were merchants and adventurers who risked their riches, and often their own lives, on a daily basis on the ships which sailed for the mysterious East. Pirates, storms, attacks by enemy fleets, strange lands: mystery and adventure! These people couldn’t let up even in Venice, in their own city. Adventure for them was a way of life. They therefore created a city which offered all types of adventure, in every sense of the world! Carnival and masks everywhere represent absence of rule and freedom of action. You can do everything you want when you hide behind them, and adventure is possible again, even in the city, among the offices of the institutions, regardless of the laws and the vetoes of morality, however severe they may be. And so carnival breaks its boundaries and masks enter the realm of everyday life. In some places they were actually compulsory by law! Games of chance (a good example of adventure in the city), were a bit like the “national sport” of Venice, but in the state casino (the “Ridotto”) you could only play if you were masked.’
Of course there’s truth in this explanation. Just visit Cologne in Germany today when the carnival season arrives, and you will certainly find out that this kind of feast is an event to do things you would not do at other times. But Belloni’s explanation of why masks were worn in daily Venetian life may be at least partly wrong. After reading Karbe and Toscani, I think especially the use of the Bauta had a more serious and sophisticated social and political background. The Venetians had a deep understanding of what anonymity was good for. And, what’s most important, a citizen wearing a mask in Venice did not escape law and order. Of course he or she could do things which were not meant to be attributed to him or her by others, but his or her behavior still had to comply with certain expectations and laws. Venetians wearing Bauta and Volto were not up to antisocial behavior.
Today, for older generations the internet life of the digital natives perhaps looks as suspicious as the Venetian life may have looked like from the perspective of other cultures in the past. Ironically, even piracy in a different context is a core topic again. But in both cases the critics also misunderstand a culture which knows about the merits of anonymity and how to live with it. That’s one of the topics I’d like to work on.