Sunday, October 16, 2011

Putting on a False Face

How this year has flown. Halloween is almost here and the stores are filled with costumes, candies and all the usual paraphernalia. Houses are being decorated and jack-o-lanterns are being carved. There will be trick-or-treating and costume parties as usual. For me, the ultimate Halloween party would be a grand masquerade ball, or bal masqué as the French call it. If I had zillions and were inclined to such conspicuous frivolity, I’d be tempted to throw one of those, though it would likely be nothing in the class of the masquerade balls the French royalty threw in the late 1300s and early 1400s. Those were strictly A-list affairs, as you can imagine.
But the B-list (the upper class) was soon to have its shot at la dolce vita during the 16th century Italian Renaissance. It is those elaborate public dances of Venice that come to mind when I think of a masquerade ball. The costumes were to die for, of course, but it’s the masks that made those affairs so fantastic. Alas, the Venetian Republic fell to decadence and the grand parties came to an end. A Swiss count introduced the masquerade ball to London in 1708, but it wasn’t exactly the real Venetian deal from which Carnival and Mardi Gras are descended.
I don’t think there are any of us who have never worn a mask. But what is the appeal that masks hold for us? It could simply be that masks are in our blood. They’ve been worn by cultures around the world since time immemorial and have been made from every material from corn husks to gold.
This stone mask on exhibition at Musée de la Bible et de la Terre Sainte in Paris is from the pre-ceramic neolithic period. It dates back to 7000 BCE and is probably the oldest mask in the world. In Africa, masks were worn from as early as the Paleolithic age (Stone Age) for ritual ceremonies and celebrations. Native Americans have also used masks such as the sacred "false face" masks of the Iroquois in their traditional ceremonies since ancient times.

“False Face.” Now, there’s food for thought. I’m thinking about Venice again. At one time, the Venetians wore masks as a matter of course. They were not reserved strictly for festive occasions. This served to put all Venetian citizens on equal footing as true identities were concealed. A peasant could pose as a prince and vice versa. An equitable arrangement, to be sure, but there were hidden dangers. In 1792, King Gustav III of Sweden was murdered at a masquerade ball by a masked assassin.
I confess to have once hidden behind a mask – from my ex-husband at a Halloween party a few years ago. If you’re wondering how come he didn’t recognize me, just look at those Venetian masks below. As much as I would have loved to, I wasn’t wearing one of those. But maybe I will one day…at a masked ball where everyone will be tripping the light fantastic in grand style.

African-Bambara Mask
Bolivian Owl Mask
Indian Goddess Mask from Nepal
Native American Corn Husk Mask
Nuo Mask from Southwest China

Images courtesy of Robert Ibold of Masks From Around The World. To see the entire collection, visit

Image of mask on exhibition at Musée de la Bible et de la Terre Sainte courtesy of Institut Catholique de Paris. Copyright Philippe Houssin.

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