First noted in Italy during the 15th century Renaissance, Masquerade balls were costumed public festivities that were particularly popular in Venice (Italy). They were generally elaborate dances held for members of the upper classes, and have been associated with the tradition of the Venetian Carnival.
(typical dress for masquerade balls, today used during the famous Venice Carnival)
Masquerade balls became common throughout mainland Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A Swiss count is credited with having introduced the Venetian fashion of a semi-public masquerade ball to London in the eighteenth century, with the first being held at Haymarket Opera House. Throughout the century the dances became popular, both in England and then Colonial America.
They did became popular but sometimes with fatal results. Gustav III of Swedenwas assassinated at a masquerade ball by disgruntled nobleman Jacob Johan Anckarstrom, an event which Eugene Scribe wrote about in his play Gustave III, and which was later made in to an opera "Un Ballo in Maschera" by Giuseppe Verdi.
Other fatal episode was "Burning Men's Ball" or "Wild Men's Ball". It was in celebration of the marriage of a lady-in-waiting of Charles VI of France's queen in Paris on January 28, 1393. The King and five courtiers dressed as wildmen of the woods (woodwoses), with costumes of flax and pitch. When they came too close to a torch, the dancers caught fire. (This episode was later adapted into Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Hop Frog".)
The picturesque quality of the masquerade ball has made it a favorite topic or setting in literature. Other Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death" is based on the concept of a masquerade ball in which a central figure is just what he is costumed to be. Another ball in Zurich is featured in the novel Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.
Regency romance novels, which are typically about Britain's upper class "ton" during the 1800s, often make use of masquerade balls as settings, due both to their popularity at the time and to their endless supply of plot devices.
Masquerade balls hold romance and intrigue, accentuated by the masks guests wear to disguise their identity. Some masks are very simple, while others are so carefully planned and elaborate that they constitute works of art. Their history goes beyond that of the balls themselves, and holds specific cultural meanings besides their beauty and mystery. No one truly knows when the venetians started to create masks..
Gothic artist Victoria Frances has been highly inspired by Venice. These above are some of her artwork featuring the city and the beauty of venetian masks.
For those interested, I will make another post specifically on Venice featuring pictures taken by me of the town (which I have visited TONS of times, having the luck of living nearby!) and also a picture of an amazing mask I bought there on my last visit.. :)