Walking into a mask shop in Venice means being transported into a magical world where thousands of faces of all shapes and colors seem to be watching you while hiding their secrets.
A great variety of masks can be found in the mascarer’s workshop: from the main characters of the commedia dell’arte, such as Pantaloon and Harlequin, to the irreverent gnaga of Carnival. The most common and most intriguing, however, are the bauta and moretta, which remind us of the mysterious allure of Venice in the 1700’s.
The history of Venetian masks
There used to be a tradition of mask wearing in Venice not only at Carnival, but also during other holiday seasons. All told, these masked periods could add up to almost six months out of the year!
People from all walks of life: aristocrats, commoners, prostitutes, spies for the fearsome Council of Ten, even the Doge himself, would hide behind a white larva, the name of a specific mask associated with the bauta costume.
Given the popularity of masks, it’s easy to imagine that there were numerous mask makers in the city, but it actually seems that in 1773 there were only 12 such shops employing a total of 36 people. Though laws governing the production of masks had existed since the 13th century, members of the mascareri union (which, in 1500, even included a woman) complained about unlicensed mask makers that were undermining their profession.
Mask production in the city took a big hit when, in 1774, the only legal gambling house in the Serenissima, the Ridotto di Palazzo Dandolo, was closed. Since anyone gambling in the casino was required to wear a mask, it’s closure greatly reduced demand for the mask makers’ wares.
It didn’t take long for things to go from bad to worse for these artisans: when the Republic fell in 1797 the Venetian Carnival tradition all but disappeared as it was repressed and limited by the new Austrian government.
The rebirth of the Venetian Carnival
Luckily, the traditions and craft of the mascareri weren’t completely lost. We asked Gualtiero dall’Osto form the Tragicomica workshop to tell us how this artisan art form was revived at the end of the 1970’s.
In those days there was a workshop where actors and artisans met up, the Laboratorio Artigiano Maschere in Barbaria de le Tole, which, even in 1977, was producing masks in the Venetian tradition. This was where many future mascareri first got interested in the techniques and history of mask making.
1980 was an important year in this particular story: the Carnival had recently been revived, and that year’s edition saw a true fusion of the theater and the city, thanks in large part to Maurizio Scaparro, who was the director of the Biennale Teatro International Theater Festival at the time.
This was when Donato Sartori arrived in the city, and, together with his father Amleto, created masks for theatrical productions in collaboration with artists such as Strehler, Fo, and Barrault. The workshops and Sartori’s performances showed masks could make the leap from being artisan products to being real art.
This period in the early 1980’s saw the opening of most of the mask shops that still today produce original Venetian masks, keeping the traditional ways alive while still finding room for innovation and artistic creativity.
HOW ARE MASKS MADE?
Today, despite the fact that you can find shops selling masks all over the city, there are fewer than 10 shops that produce their own.
So, just how is a mask made?
As with any art, mask making starts with the study of traditional forms, and then the creation of a design that combines these received ideas with the imagination of the artisan. Once they have a design, the artisan molds a clay model of the mask, and a plaster mold is produced from this model.
Paper is then laid in the plaster mold and left to dry.
Once dry, the papier-mâché mask is removed from the mold and the openings for the eyes, the mouth (if there is one), and the edges are worked to perfection.
At this point, the mask is ready to be decorated with a variety of colors and materials: sequins, gold leaf, silver leaf, cloth, feathers, and many more might be used.
Beyond the mask: costumes and scenography
There are some artisans who go on to create much more than just masks: especially around Carnival season their shops are full of costumes and stunning accessories that completely transform their wearers, even if only for an hour, into characters from another time or a bizarre creature from the realm of fantasy.
With papier-mâché, these artisans can also create sculptures and stage settings that, when matched with masks and costumes, become the perfect backdrop for the Carnival parties that transform ancient Venetian palazzos into dreamscapes where anything is possible.
A special thank to Tragicomica mask workshop for their collaboration and for the images.