In the 1700s Venice had become Europe’s “city of masks” thanks to the popularity of its Carnival; and the fashion of wearing masks in public started to take hold at other social events too. Gentlewomen wore a moretta, the Venetian version of the vizard, which was usually complemented with a wide-brimmed hat and a veil.
Half masks, worn also by men, were typical as well, though often in white. Called a maschera, it was tucked up into a tricorn black hat to keep it on. Much like in Paris and London, the use of masks in Venice’s daily life allowed for more social exchange in a highly stratified society, whether in the theatres, cafés, markets, or parks.
As mask wearing evolved, however, the gentlewomen who saw it as a way to protect their virtue in theatres were joined by sex workers who wore them to hide their identities—as well as pique curiosity and intrigue by dressing as aristocrats, not only in theatres but in gambling houses. It turned an evening of entertainment into a guessing game of who belonged to proper society and who did not. As the English writer John Dryden put it in the second part of his 1670 play The Conquest of Granada, “those Vizard Masques maintain that Fashion, / To soothe and tickle sweet Imagination.”