Venetian Resurrection

Venice puts the Mask back on. 

Thirty years ago you couldn’t find a mask shop in Venice; today you can’t walk anywhere without seeing one. The colorful masks, usually associated with Carnevale, have been around since the 12th century, but for most of the past two centuries they’ve been largely forgotten. In the early 1980’s Mario Belloni and a handful of other artisans were credited with reviving the Venice mask making tradition. Mario’s Ca Macana mask store is a few steps off the Grand Canal and he offers workshops on the mask making process. His book, Mashcere a Venezia explores the history of Venetian mask making and Stanley Kubrick came to Mario when he needed masks for the movie Eyes Wide Shut.

With the fall of the Venetian Republic at the end of the 18th century, the importance of Carnevale and masks diminished to the point where they all but disappeared for nearly 200 years. In 1979 the municipality of Venice reinstated Carnevale to not only bring back a Venetian tradition but to bring in much needed tourism revenue. Around this time Mario and some of his fellow architecture students started selling papier mache masks in the squares. Was it the love of a time-honored tradition that inspired Mario? “No. I needed the money,” he admits. “There were no mask shops like you see today. We didn’t know about the Venetian mask tradition and that’s why today you see such variety— suns and moons and things like that. Back in those days there was just ten to fifteen of us selling masks made of newspaper papier mache. No shops, just us.”

Obviously a lot has changed. There are hundreds of mask shops now in Venice and the quality runs the gamut from beautiful and expensive handmade masks to cheap, machine-stamped plastic ones from China, Romania and Albania. Mario pulls a mask down from his workshop shelf and shows the layers of paper strips that form the texture inside the mask; the hallmark of its handmade origins.

The workshop is cluttered with half-finished masks, painting supplies, clay busts and large stacks of blotting paper. Mario gives a quick explanation of the mask-making process, “First you make a clay mold of a face and from that you make a plaster cast. Inside the cast you put a little clear grease and then you start laying in strips of blotting paper— about four or five layers brushed with water and flour paste. After drying 45 minutes or so, you remove it from the plaster, trim and adjust it, and then you’re ready to paint.”

While talking, Mario takes out an unadorned, white, sharp-beaked larva mask and puts it on along with a black cape and black tri-cornered hat, one of the most traditional of Venetian costumes. Pointing to his outfit, Mario continues, “This is the bauta. The word bauta originally comes from the black cape but it has come to mean the whole ensemble.” Still in costume, he displays another mask, a muta— a black, oval mask with no mouth hole. He turns the mask to show the string bit that allows the wearer to hold it to her face by biting onto it. “These were used by the ruling class women in their games of seduction. You knew you had won the game if she allowed you to see her face.” Mario moves over to the counter and pulls out some old pen and ink drawings. One of them features the eerie Dottore Della Peste (plague doctor) mask. This white mask with a long curvy beak was used by doctors during the days of the Black Death. The beak was stuffed with medicinal spices and herbs to help prevent doctors from catching the plague while attending to patients.

Born and raised in Genoa, it’s clear that Mario feels at home in his workshop in his adopted city. “I was coming back from Rome and the train stopped at the Venice station at night. I decided to get out and explore the city and I fell in love with it. I got my chance to live here when I was an architecture student and since then I’ve learned a lot about the history. Venice was an amazing place!” exclaims Mario. “Five hundred years of peace! It was a dictatorship by the nobles, and the ruling class was loved. It was an egalitarian society where people left their windows open at night.” Mario sits down and continues, “You must remember 500 years ago, these masks were not just worn for Carnevale, they were worn year round, to court, to parties, at the casino. They let nobles engage in behavior”, says Mario, searching for the right phrase, “that were afraid to try without a mask.” Indeed, wealthy Venetians could afford to indulge their eccentricities but the small, crowded island didn’t offer many opportunities for privacy. The mask was the perfect solution.

Mario looks around the workshop, perhaps reflecting on his journey from architecture student to preeminent Venetian mask-maker. “It was not a gift,” says Mario with a sweep of the hand, referring to what he has built. “It’s been a lot of work but it’s been great.” Many stories about artisans who create things by hand are about a craft endangered by machines and cheap offshore labor. Mario Belloni’s story is not about a dying craft; it’s about the resurrection of one.

You can purchase a mask or Mario Belloni’s book Mashcere a Venezia at his Ca Macana store at Dorsoduro 3172, Venice, Italy.  You can also purchase them online at www.camacana.com.

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