"Oh, look!" I said, "Masks!" Two shops further on there was another mask shop and then another and another...
Lest I be thought to exaggerate, I should say that only every other shop in Venice sells masks: the shops in between invariably being given over to selling glass -- although, even then, they may well be selling a few masks as well!
You simply cannot move through Venice without seeing masks but - except for Carnevale (the frolicsome celebrations preceding the beginning of Lent) they are almost always only displayed in shop windows and hardly ever worn!
Originally, masks was not limited to the period of Carnival, but would have been used on numerous occasions as a device to hide the wearer's identity and, possibly, his or her social status: thus allowing a freer interaction with others who might well be of a social - or marital - status that would normally be prohibited by convention. The lover, the thief, the spy might all don the anonymity, license and safety of the mask.
This origin has since been subverted into (at best) a highly attractive and decorative art-form and (at worst) an excuse for peddling cheap tourist-tat.
The masks that were once a common feature of daily life in the grande caffès of the Piazza San Marco were styled after characters from the 16th Century Italian tradition of improvisational theatre, the Commedia dell'Arte ('The Comedy of Artists'); today they are exotic confections of feathers, lace, beads, sequins and other fripperies and can assume the likeness of anyone or anything in the natural (or unnatural) world or, indeed, any region whatsoever within the limitless territory of the human imagination...
You can read more about the history of the Venetian mask - and buy one for yourself (thus saving the bother and expense of having to go to Venice!) at The Venetian Mask Shop.
Images: Brian Sibley & David Weeks © 2006/8 Click on images to enlarge
For more Venice imagery, visit my website to view the album Venice Observed and then follow the links at the foot of that page to three further albums of photographs.