Saving Face

James H. Johnson

in Venice Incognito

Published by University of California Press

Published in print February 2011 | ISBN: 9780520267718
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520948624 | DOI:
Saving Face

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This chapter discusses the act of saving face through the use of masks. Masks during the eighteenth-century were used to conceal identities. However, the principal purposes of masks for most Venetians was not disguise, rather their motives lay more often in ritualized reserve than in concealment. For those born of status but suddenly diminished to poverty, the resorting to masks for concealment meant they felt able to ask for alms. For these disgraced poor, the masks covered their pride, hid their humiliation, and obscured their identity. For Venetian women, veils and masks worked in similar ways but they typically weren’t used to cover shame or humiliation. Rather masks and veils were viewed as a kind of protection for women. They served also as a means of distinction between commoners and noblewomen. Veils and masks also served as evidence that women served a subservient role in society and at home in the family. In sum, the women’s masks and veils were a token of reserve and guardian of distance. By holding their wearers at a distance, women preserved a space for self-respect and circumscribed liberty. In sum, Venetian masks spared ceremony while preserving respect. The mask furnished a common footing without denying status and saved face when dignity was at stake. It also served as a token of privacy instead of the real thing, a manufactured buffer that licensed genuine aloofness and unaccustomed closeness. The mask honored liberty in the Venetian sense, which meant a measure of autonomy within jealousy guarded limits.

Keywords: saving face; masks; conceal identities; ritualized reserve; protection; self-respect; circumscribed liberty; token of privacy

Chapter.  6238 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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