When you think of the masquerade balls of the 18th century, what kinds of masks come to mind?
For most people, their minds conjure up images of elaborate, elegant masks with jewels, feathers, and other decorations. Another type of mask was worn at this time, though, particularly by women, and it was known as the moretta.
The moretta (the term derives from the adjective “moro,” which means dark) was a simple, black mask with no decorations. It didn’t even have cut-outs for the nose or mouth!
The moretta has been depicted in paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, such as The Rhinoceros and The Meeting of the Procuratore and His Wife, and it adds a surprisingly eerie feel to every image. It almost looks as though the women’s faces have been removed altogether.
A Brief History of the Moretta
The moretta was the sleekest and simplest type of mask worn by women in cities like Venice and Paris during the 17th and 18th centuries. Shaped like an oval, this mask was likely made from plain material like cardstock or cardboard with black paint or fabric laid over it.
Not only did the Moretta disguise the women who wore it, but it also rendered them mute. It was kept in place with a button that the women held between their teeth. If they opened their mouths to talk, the mask would fall.
With these facts in mind, it’s not surprising that the moretta was also at times referred to as “servetta muta,” which translates to “mute servant.”
During the late 1600s, it was common for women in Paris to cover their faces when they went out in public. James H. Johnson, a history professor at Boston University, revealed that If women didn’t want to wear a hat to shield their pale skin from the sun, a mask, such as the moretta, was a popular alternative.
Not only did these masks protect women from the sun, but they also accentuated how pale their skin had become due to their diligent shielding. Pale skin was very fashionable at the time, so women wanted to do whatever they could to highlight it.
Masks and Blurred Lines
The donning of masks also helped to facilitate the blending of different social classes. According to this article published by the New Orleans Museum of Art, they acted as a “social lubricant.”
For a long time, Venice’s rigid social hierarchy kept various classes from mingling. With the introduction of spaces like theaters and gambling halls, though, the lines between classes started to blur.
Johnson explains that by wearing masks, people from different classes could be in the same space without even realizing it. Aristocrats would have no way of knowing that they were rubbing elbows with those of a lower social sphere because everyone looked the same with masks on.
Beyond Feathers and Sequins
For those who want to stand out at their next masquerade event, opting for a moretta instead of a traditional Carnival mask might be a perfect choice. At the very least, it’ll be a guaranteed conversation starter.