The Origins Of Italian Carnival Masks

The Carnival of Venice is a celebration world famous for its intricate Venetian masks. But did you know that these masks are more than pieces of art?
italian carnival masks in venice

The Carnival of Venice is an annual celebration in Italy — and one that’s world famous for its intricate Venetian masks. In the festival, these masks are part of elaborate costumes that evoke feelings of pomp, elegance and even a bit of magic. But did you know that Italian carnival masks are more than beautiful pieces of art?

Here, we’ll explore how each mask symbolizes a character from the Italian theater tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, and cover a bit of the history behind these classic tropes.

infographic about italian carnival masks

The Stories Behind Italian Carnival Masks


City of origin: Naples

Pulcinella represents irony and insolence. He’s resourceful and always finds a way to outsmart people in power.


City of origin: Venice

Colombina (“little dove” in Italian) is Arlecchino’s girlfriend and the archetype of the smart, sassy servant. She is very devoted to her lady Rosaura and often helps her with her love intrigues.


City of origin: Bergamo

This astute and mischievous character was originally associated with demons. His name comes from the German Höllenkönig (King of Hell), which transformed first into Helleking and finally Harlequin. His costume is composed of differently colored patches and rags.


City of origin: Venice

Pantalone is a rich and greedy merchant. He wears red tights (calzamaglia in Italian), a black cape and a money purse full of golden coins. Tight trousers, called pantaloni after this character, were very popular among the Venetian working class in the 16th century, and are the source of the English word “pants.”

Dottor Balanzone

City of origin: Bologna

The doctor is a typical azzeccagarbugli (unscrupulous lawyer) who speaks a refined language full of Latin words. Balanzone comes from the word balanza (bilancia in Italian and “scale” in English), a symbol of justice.


City of origin: Bergamo

Brighella is a shrewd and cunning character and the best friend of Arlecchino. He’s a skilled liar, perfectly represented by his name, which comes from briga (meaning “trouble,” or “dispute”).

Want to learn more about the history of Carnival? Read about Carnival celebrations around the globe.

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