The Venetian term “mascaron” indicates stone figures with monstrous and grotesque features, inserted on the keystones of portals, wells or bridges, for ornamental and superstitious use.
The ancient function of the “mascarons” with frightening sneers or monstrous features, half human and half beast, carved in the facades of palaces and churches, was to scare away the evil demons or even the devil.
In particular, the sacred places were equipped with stone guardians often placed near the bell towers so that they could guard against the evil presences that, attracted by the sound of the bells, would create havoc among the population.
One of the most famous mascarons is certainly the one that decorates the entrance portal of the bell tower of Santa Maria Formosa, known as “El Mascaron”. Its purpose was to frighten the devil but surely it succeeded in scaring the English writer John Ruskin, author of the beautiful book “The Stones of Venice”, who described it in this way: “a head – huge, inhuman and monstrous – leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant…..”
“El Mascaron” at first sight is undoubtedly impressive. Observing with care the traits of the monstrosity, in the end the thought runs more towards the terrible malformation that struck this unfortunate person, rather than to a form of wickedness where the external ugliness plays to raise the sense of terror. Isn’t it true that behind such inclemency on the part of “Mother Nature” hid the purity and the soul’s generosity of Quasimodo?
Curiosity: even now in Venice, when you see a woman using too much make-up, so much so that she looks like a mask, you say “par un mascaron”.
Location: Santa Maria Formosa, Venice