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Venetian Masks – 10 Things to Know Before You Buy

Venetian Masks - 10 Things to Know Before You Buy - rossiwrites.com

Venetian masks are beautiful and it’s only too natural to want to buy at least one to either wear at a special event or use as a decorative element at home.

If you have always wanted to have your own Venetian mask, in this blog post today I will give you all the information that you need to make the best choice.

From a short historic overview of how Venetian masks came to be to how to pick an authentic Venetian mask, all sorts of curious and useful details are included revealing the mystery behind the masks.  

A beautiful mask in front of the Doge's Palace - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

When you are in Venice, masks are everywhere!

Walking down Venice’s narrow streets you come across the elegant shops of the artisan mask makers. With decades of experience behind their back and a deep understanding of the centuries-old traditions of the Venetian masks, they create veritable works of wearable art using paper mache, velvet and lace, feathers and rhinestones, gold and silver leaf.

Visiting Venice’s lavish museums and palaces, you come face to face with frescoes and paintings of ladies and gentlemen concealing their faces behind whimsical masks while engaging in the rituals of social life and some vigorous merrymaking.

Masks in many different forms and shapes greet you everywhere you look in Venice – from the souvenir stalls at the city’s hotspots to the walls of hotels and private homes.

And if you come to Venice during the weeks of its worldwide famous Carnival, then the focus of your stay will truly be the Venetian mask.

A female and male matching masks standing in front of the St. Mark's Basin - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

It is impossible to resist the call of the Venetian masks!

Lavishly decorated and shaped in many whimsical and wonderful ways, they awake your sense of mystery and drama. They offer an easy way to become a more glamourous version of yourself and transport you to a time when, we imagine, everything was grander and so much more resplendent.

A Venetian mask is also a wonderful memento of your time in Venice. And it makes a great present for a special friend or family member.

The window display of the mask-making shop Ca' Macana - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

So, by all means, go ahead and buy at least one Venetian mask during your stay in Venice. And let it be the most extravagant and beautiful one that you can manage. In the years that will come, you will often stop to look at it and it will add a bit of sparkle even to the greyest day.

Now, before you take your card out to pay for your Venetian mask, have a look at the advice and information in this blog post. As promised, it will help you find out how to make the best choices when it comes to purchasing a mask in Venice. 

A beautiful mask holding a rose in front of the St. Mark's Basin - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

Mask-making and mask-wearing in Venice are centuries-old traditions. Knowing a bit about the history behind them and the work that goes into creating an authentic Venetian mask will help inform better your purchasing decisions. Understanding what each mask means and how to best take care of it, will help you enjoy your Venetian mask for as long as possible.

I have organised the information below in the most concise and entertaining way possible. I hope that you can take out many useful pointers to help you choose just the right Venetian mask for you.

Now, let’s start!

 

 

Venetian Masks – 10 Things to Know Before You Buy

 

 

1. History of the Venetian Masks

A beautiful Venetian mask under a blue and pink dawn - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

Masks and Venice go together centuries back in time. While nowadays, masks are one of the most popular and sought-after souvenirs one can buy in Venice, in the past wearing a mask here was very much a way of life.

As a social equaliser, the Venetian masks allowed rich and poor Venetians to mingle together and to avoid scrutiny. Venetian ladies employed them as much to preserve their modesty as to play seduction games.

While masks started life in Venice as an accessory to the city’s lavish Carnival, soon they transcended the Carnival period and were worn in the city of water for most of the year. 

The documented story of the Venetian Carnival starts in 1094. This is when the Doge Vitale Falier signed the first document that has reached us where the precursor of the word Carnival – carnis laxatio – is mentioned.

Originally the Carnival of Venice started on St. Stephen’s Day on 26th December and lasted until Shrove Tuesday. It was a period of time when the Ancient Roman spirit of panem et circenses was truly alive. Plus, the different classes of the strict Venetian society could mix and be merry together behind the anonymity allowed by a mask.

The advantages of wearing a mask soon caught on. By the 13th century, there were several mask makers and hundreds of mask wearers in Venice. In fact, the first mention of masks in Venetian laws dates back to this century.

At the time, a favourite Venetian pastime was to throw perfume-filled eggshells at passers-by. However, people emboldened by the anonymity granted by masks started throwing eggs filled with ink instead of rose water. This soon became a public hazard and the Venetian Senate had to step in. Hence, in 1268 a law was passed forbidding those concealed by a mask to throw eggshells.

Also in the 13th century, the Venetian mask makers were already organised in a guild. Known as the Arte dei Depentori, this was the guild of those working with paint. Among them were also the painters, gilders, textile designers, embroiderers, gold-tooled leather artisans, playing-card makers, and sign makers of Venice.

In 1271, the first statute of the Arte dei Depentori came into force. It is the oldest statute relating to the craft of painting in Italy. From this point onwards, the production of masks in Venice grew, new mask-making workshops were established, and different mask-making techniques were developed and applied in practice. Mask makers were known as mascareri in the Venetian language. Their work was officially recognised as a craft with a statute issued on 10th April 1436.

Soon, mask-wearing transcended the Carnival period. Venetians – both men and women – started wearing masks for most of the year. Different styles of masks were developed in Venice and adapted to daily life. In certain social situations, masks became compulsory, too. For example, when married women went to the theatre they had to wear a mask.

With the decline of Venice in the 18th century, however, the number of mask-making workshops in the city on water declined, too. By 1773, there were 12 of them still in operation with only 31 people employed in them.

In 1797, with the fall of the Republic of Venice, the Venetian Carnival was banned and masks could no longer be worn on the streets and in public life. The art and craft of mask-making soon fell into oblivion.

It was only in 1979 when a handful of enthusiasts got behind the idea to revive the splendour of the Venetian Carnival that Venetian masks started attracting attention again. Soon after mask-making studios and shops opened their doors in Venice. The old techniques and designs were researched in-depth and through the decades that followed masks came to symbolise Venice once more.

 

 

2. The Meaning Behind the Venetian Masks

A real-size Plague Doctor Mask in front of the Ca Macana shop - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

In terms of traditions, there are two types of masks sold in Venice. In this blog post, for ease of language, I refer to all artisan masks that are made in Venice simply as Venetian masks. However, in terms of traditional styles of masks, we need to make a distinction between:

  • Historical Venetian Masks – these are the styles of masks that were actually worn in the Republic of Venice. They are ancient in their origins. The first law regulating their wearing dates back to the 13th century but masks were in use in Venice even before then. Some of them are:
    • bautta (also spelled bauta) –  this is the most traditional Venetian mask. Originally it was worn only by men of all social classes but by the 18th century, it had also been embraced by married women. It consisted of several elements:
      • volto (or larva) – the actual face mask. Traditionally white, with a long nose and a triangular bottom half jutting above the lips of the wearer so that he or she could eat and drink with the mask on.
      • tabarro – a black cloak.
      • zendale – the traditional hood worn over the tabarro and underneath the tricorno.
      • tricorno – a tricorn hat.

What I like about this mask is that it changes the pitch of the voice of its wearer making it even harder to guess their identity. Bear in mind that nowadays, the term bautta is often used to refer to just the mask element of the whole original disguise. At the same time, volto nowadays is customarily used to signify a full-face mask which is beautifully decorated with swirls and other elements. 

    • moretta (also known as muta) – a black oval mask worn exclusively by women. It was held in place by biting on a button attached to the back of the mask. This prevented the wearer from speaking and thus rendered her mysterious and alluring to the man trying to guess her identity. I find this mask and its implied eroticism rather curious, especially considering that at the time, the ladies of Venice would wear clothes with very deep cleavages. Thus they freely revealed their bosoms but hid their lips and facial expressions behind a small oval mask that sort of made them look like having a black hole instead of a face.
    • gnaga – similar to a cat-face, this mask was traditionally worn by homosexual men. Cruelly repressed and persecuted at the time, wearing the gnaga gave them the possibility to be open about who they were but at the same time, the wearer was expected to speak vulgarly and carry around a basket with kittens in it. While we can’t change history and can only learn from it, I have to admit that the story of the gnaga mask always makes me feel rather sad.
  • Commedia dell’Arte Masks – these are the masks pertaining to the traditional Italian improvisational theatre Commedia dell’Arte which was very popular between the 16th and the 18th centuries. Its most famous protagonists are Punchinello (also known in English with its original Italian name Pulcinella), Harlequin (or Arlecchino in Italian), Pantalone, and Colombina. Commedia dell’Arte performances were staged regularly in the private theatres of Venice and served as a source of entertainment for the nobility of the city of water. Nowadays, one of the most popular styles of masks in Venice is that of Colombina. It conceals the top half of the face leaving the lips and the chin uncovered. It can be decorated in many different ways and adorned with feathers and rhinestones. It’s very comfortable to wear and it stays on thanks to its long ribbons which are tied at the back of the head. 

Finally, I need to mention the Plague Doctor mask. Nowadays, it is very popular with tourists for its long beak gives it a very macabre look. This mask is different from the ones above in so that it was not a Carnival or a theatrical mask. Instead, it was used to perform a job. In other words, it was worn to make it possible for doctors to approach and treat plague sufferers. If you think that doctors nowadays use personal protection equipment, well, this was the PPE of the Venetian doctors during the 16th century.

The beak was stuffed with aromatic herbs to help the doctor avoid the stench of the disease. The eye holes were covered with an early form of eye glasses. And the clothing of the doctor was made of waxed canvas which was sealed around the mask thus limiting as best as possible the chances of contagion.   

 

 

3. Venetian Masks in Art

A beautiful Venetian mask standing next to the gondola service stand - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

A good way to learn about Venetian masks and to appreciate their role in shaping the culture of the Republic of Venice is to see first hand their many depictions in the art collections and museums dotted around the city on water.

One of the best places to head to in this regard is Ca’ Rezzonico – a magnificent palace on the Grand Canal which houses the Museum of 18th Century Venice. Here you can admire:

  • Pietro Longhi’s paintings documenting the Republic of Venice as it was in the last century of its existence. From the point of view of Venetian masks, some of the paintings to pay particular attention to are:
    • Conversation between Bautas – where the central figures of a man and a woman wear the traditional Venetian Bauta disguise.
    • Il Rinoceronte – showing a Venetian lady with a face concealed by a Moretta mask.
    • The Charlatan – with the central male figure wearing a full Bauta disguise whereas the central female figure has removed the mask but has the tricorn hat, the hood, and the cloak still on.
    • Il Ridotto (in English, The Foyer) – showing the main room of the gambling house of Palazzo Dandolo. You will notice that almost everyone depicted here wears a mask. A mask had to be worn by everyone frequenting the gambling house which remained open during the Carnival of Venice. The gambling tables were operated by impoverished Venetian noblemen and they were not required to wear a mask, which is reflected in this painting.
  • Giandomenico Tiepolo’s frescoes depicting Punchinello (originally known as Pulcinella in Italian) – one of the most popular characters of the Commedia dell’Arte. The frescoes had graced the villa where the painter’s family lived in the small village of Zianigo in the Venetian mainland. They were transferred to Ca’ Rezzonico in 1936 after the city of Venice purchased them to prevent them from being sold abroad.  

 

 

4. New Styles of Venetian Masks

The window display of the mask-making shop Ca' Macana - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

Alongside the traditional Venetian masks, nowadays in Venice, you can see, admire, and purchase many different types of masks which have been inspired by our modern times.

Made of paper mache, leather, and metal, these new designs are very imaginative and appeal to our sense of fun, drama, and grandeur.

The artisan mask makers of Venice seem to be always seeking new inspirations and influences to adapt to the medium of the Venetian mask. From masks studded with crystals to masks covered with gold and silver macrame, from masks lavishly decorated with feathers to masks recreating different animals or even pop culture characters, the Venetian mask is open to creative interpretations. 

You just have to have a look around the artisan mask-making shops of Venice and see which mask will appeal to your sense of glamour and whimsicality. It can be a tiny mask to use as a decorative piece in your home or a huge creation designed to command the attention in a large space. It can be a mask designed specifically to be worn or a mask that recreates in the most wonderful ways animals, planets, famous works of art, and many other imaginative subjects.

 

 

5. Wearing a Venetian Mask

A fun mask in the portico of the Doge's Palace - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

Venetian masks look stunning as decorative pieces, especially the larger ones of them. At the same time, traditionally masks made in Venice are designed to be worn.

The creation of a paper-mache Venetian mask takes several steps. First, the artisan mask maker creates a mould out of clay. Once dry, liquid plaster is then poured into it to create a negative mould – a reverse image of the original design. When the plaster hardens, the clay mould is broken to release the negative mould.

The negative plaster mould is then used to create the actual masks. This is done by layering pieces of paper impregnated with sticky paste inside the plaster mould. It takes several layers – each pressed and adjusted by hand – to create a mask. Once dry, the mask is removed and decorated accordingly.

The plaster mould can be used many times but if the mask maker wants to create another plaster mould, he needs to sculpt a new clay mould from scratch. Often mask makers have over fifty different styles of masks. Each style requires the execution of the above process. 

The masks made to be worn are anatomically correct. This way, they fit well and the wearer quickly gets used to the sensation of having a mask on their face.

If you are buying a Venetian mask to wear for a special occasion, spend a bit of time finding the one that would look truly great on you. See how the different models emphasise your face and how by concealing your features they add mystery. Ask the mask maker for advice and for their permission before you touch and try the masks on. 

Once you buy your Venetian mask, wear it for an hour or so before your event. You will notice that you may need to hold your head a bit differently than usual. Your line of vision may also change. You may want to see if you need to apply particular make-up around your eyes to make them more expressive when glimpsed through the eye holes of the mask.

Wearing a Venetian mask is fun! For a moment in time, you can be anyone you want to be and that’s the beauty and magic of it.

 

 

6. Decorating Your Own Venetian Mask

Mask-making workshop with masks ready to be decorated - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

To truly experience the history and charm of the Venetian masks, consider attending a Decorate Your Own Mask workshop when you are in Venice.

They are organised by all of the best-known artisan mask makers in the city on water. Lasting between an hour and two and catering to individuals and groups, the Decorate Your Own Mask workshops give you direct access to a master mask maker and his or her studio.

You will be shown the different styles of masks available to decorate. There can be as many as fifty different designs – full face, half face, animal-shaped, even moon- and sun-shaped. Then the mask maker will explain how to achieve professional results – from mixing the paints to adding swirls and adornments. You can decorate your mask exactly as you want.

At the start of last summer, I took my child to a Decorate Your Own Mask at Ca’ Macana – a well-known Venetian mask-making studio and shop. It was a lovely experience to have, especially after the end of the incredibly strict lockdown we had just been trough in Italy.

It was wonderful to spend an hour in the studio surrounded by moulds, masks, paints and feathers. To this day, it is a lovely memory of Venice and our life in Italy.

 

 

7. A Fair Price for a Venetian Mask

A real-size Arlecchino Mask in front of the Ca Macana shop - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

Surrounded by endless shopping opportunities in our modern world, we tend to baulk a bit at the prices of artisan goods. A steady stream of cheap manufactured goods has really spoilt us and we tend to look first at the price rather than the actual value of things.

At a first glance, the prices of artisan-made Venetian masks may come across as just a bit too much. You may even want to bargain just a touch. Or even mention that the stalls in Venice’s most touristic hotspots sell masks for a fraction of that.

The thing is an artisan-made item like a Venetian mask has a lot of work, research, and creativity invested in it. 

Venice’s artisan mask-making workshops have spent decades reviving the art of Venetian masks. When mask-wearing was outlawed after Napoleon Bonaparte and Habsburg Austria dissolved the Republic of Venice in 1797, the art and craft of mask-making fell into oblivion.

It was only in the 1970’s and 1980’s with the resurgence of the Carnival of Venice that Venetian masks were put back in the spotlight. Craftsmen and enthusiasts took it upon themselves to research and revive techniques that had been forgotten for two centuries. Since then, the range of masks made and sold in Venice has exponentially grown showing the never-ending artistry of the craftsmen and the adaptability of the medium of the mask.

Techniques from painting, restoration, theatrical stage set design, costume making and even carpet making have been studied and are currently employed.

Venice’s artisan workshops make their masks from start to finish in the city of water itself thus providing employment for people on-site. No machines and no chemicals are used to speed up the production of masks. Only a few simple, hand-held tools are employed here and there. Several of the mask-making tasks are performed entirely by hand.

Rents of retail and studio spaces in Venice tend to be very high. Insurance premiums climb year after year due to the unique location of the city and the threat of destructive levels of acqua alta

As there are no cars and buses in Venice, everything that needs to be delivered or sent arrives and leaves on boats. It then needs to be carried from the edge of the canal to the workshop and vice-versa. It is not an easy life nor an easy way to work. Yet, the artisan mask-making workshops in Venice make an effort every day to continue creating beauty and keeping the traditions of the Venetian masks alive.

Considering all this, it’s easy to understand why the prices of artisan-made Venetian masks are higher than the imported ones sold cheaply on the street stalls. And while each mask-making artisan would stand behind his work and guarantee that it’s made with paints and materials which are suitable to be in close contact with human skin, can the same be said for the cheap imports? 

 

 

8. Transporting Your Venetian Mask Home

Two beautiful Venetian masks under an orange dawn - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

Venetian masks look so lovely and dainty that I completely understand if you fret a little bit about transporting them back home in tip-top shape. 

Don’t worry! Artisan-made Venetian masks are sturdy and constructed with quality materials and a lot of attention to detail. Just ask at the moment of purchasing one to have it wrapped well. Then, place it carefully in your suitcase using soft layers of rolled clothes and socks to fill in all gaps.

If you prefer to have the mask in your hand luggage, then make sure in advance that it fits in the allowed size bag and that it can be safely stashed either underneath the front seat or in the overhead lockers of a plane.

Alternatively, you can have the Venetian masks you have bought shipped directly by the shop to your address. This works well if you are buying several masks or a large decorative mask. Just bear in mind that depending on the final destination, you may need to pay custom charges upon receiving the masks by courier or post.

If for whatever reason you don’t want to put your Venetian mask in your luggage or your hand-luggage, then you can buy one from the souvenir shops at Venice Marco Polo Airport. Consider this a last resort solution though in case the shops are not open, you don’t find the style mask that you want or you don’t have enough time to shop right before your flight.

In any case, you can always buy authentic Venetian masks from abroad. Please, see point 9 below for suggestions on how to do it.  

 

 

9. Buying Venetian Masks from Abroad

A beautiful mask in purple with a birdcage on her head - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

You don’t need to travel to Venice to buy authentic Venetian masks. 

While nothing compares to the feeling of walking into an artisan Venetian mask shop and choosing your mask from a fabulous display, sometimes simply it’s not possible, practical or affordable to venture out to Venice for a simple mask purchase.

Many of Venice’s artisan mask makers sell their creations online. Here are a few websites for you to have a look if you are curious. As a disclaimer, I need to point out that I am in no way connected to any of these mask-making studios, these are not affiliate links, and I am only sharing them here to give more visibility to true and authentic artisan work.

  • Ca’ Macana – a mask maker extraordinaire, this family-run shop has been in business since 1984 and has supplied Venetian masks to many film productions (with Eyes Wide Shut and Fifty Shades of Grey two notable examples). 
  • Atelier Marega – in addition to handmade masks, here you will also find reproductions of lavish Venetian clothes from the 18th and the 19th centuries.
  • Carta Alta – one of the oldest mask-making workshops in Venice, it makes masks both in the traditional Venetian designs and several innovative styles. I was particularly attracted to their gold stucco masks. 

 

 

10. Caring for Your Venetian Mask

A beautiful chess mask - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

Well-made Venetian masks are sturdy and can be worn for hours at a time without any issues. Yet, an authentic Venetian mask is an artisan product that needs to be treated with love and care to guarantee its beauty and usability for as long as possible.

Venetian masks made of paper mache should be kept away from water and/or any other liquids. While Venetian masks keep their shape incredibly well over the years, they can be damaged by placing them under undue pressure, for example, by inadvertently sitting on one or a falling book landing on it.

If you are travelling or moving house and want to take your Venetian masks with you, wrap them carefully in bubble wrap and place them between soft items (for example, rolled socks or layers of rolled clothes) to keep them safe on the go.

Avoid leaving your Venetian mask exposed to direct sunlight for a long period of time. If you are using your Venetian masks as decorative pieces, dust them every now and then. However, don’t spray them with any liquids and don’t use abrasive detergents. A soft dry cloth or a feather duster are best.  

 

 

In Conclusion

A freshly painted mask is left to dry - A mask-making studio - Venice, Italy - rossiwrites.com

Venetian masks are beautiful and a great souvenir to bring home with you after a visit to Venice.

Made by hand by artisans who keep alive the history and traditions of the Venetian masks and the Carnival of Venice, masks are everywhere you look in Venice. It’s easy to fall in love with them and to want to have at least one.

In the above blog post, I share with you the ten things one needs to know before purchasing a Venetian mask. From what the different types of the traditional Venetian masks stand for to how to take care of the mask you bring home with you, from what is a fair price for a handmade Venetian mask to how to buy authentic Venetian masks from abroad, I have provided extensive details to help you make the best choices when purchasing a mask for yourself and/or for your home.

To show you how glamourous and fabulous Venetian masks can be, I illustrated this blog posts with photos I have taken at the Carnival of Venice throughout the years in addition to a few photos taken at Ca’ Macana mask-making studio and shop.  

I hope that the information shared above has been of interest to you and that it will help inform your buying decisions in the best possible way.

Enjoy buying your perfect Venetian mask!

And then have a wonderful time wearing it and decorating your home with it!  

 

 

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About the author

Rossi

Rossi

Hello! I am Rossi - a Bulgarian currently living in England after 6 years in Italy which were preceded by 14 years in England. This is my blog about my life in these three countries and travels around Europe with history and culture in mind. For regular updates, please, subscribe to my newsletter and follow me on social media online. You can also get in touch via the Contacts form or by commenting on the articles in my blog.

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