Behind the mask – Traditional mask making in Venice

Venice is famous for many things. Canals. Murano glass. Giacomo Casanova. But perhaps some of the most evocative images come from the masked Carnival celebrations every spring.

Traditional Carnival masks in Venice

Traditional Carnival masks in Venice

And although the origins of the Venetian mask are shrouded in mystery, the purpose is much clearer – to disguise the wearer. Some historians argue that Venetians wanted to subvert the rigid social class structures and that by wearing a mask everyone became equal. The wearer could disguise or completely conceal their identity or status, moving about the city freely whether a duchess or dancer, maid or minister, actor or archbishop. Consequently masks became more popular and were permitted throughout a large part of the year not just during Carnevale.

As the use of masks increased the mask-makers ( mascherari ) began to enjoy a special place in Venetian society, forming a workers guild with their own laws. Mascherari were held up alongside painters for their artistry and even today, the few artisan mascherari operating in the city are highly regarded, although sadly only a small number remain.

Traditional Venetian masks for sale at Peter Pan Masks, San Stae, Venice

Traditional Venetian masks for sale at Peter Pan Masks, San Stae, Santa Croce, Venice

One company which continues the traditional methods of mask-making is Peter Pan Masks, run by 3 Venetian sisters in the Santa Croce sestiere or district of the city. Based near the San Stae vaporetto stop the sisters make and sell masks mainly in the old papier-mâché style and they also give lessons too so I decided to have a go!

Blank papier mache Venetian masks ready to be decorated

Blank papier mache Venetian masks ready to be decorated

Elisabetta began by explaining how masks are made with papier-mâché in a plaster mould. A thin plaster gesso is then painted over the top to give a smooth finish. The process takes days as each stage has to dry out and be sanded. Its not as simple as it might look!

And there isn’t just one mask shape either but several, each with a different history, use or meaning. Possibly one of the best known is the rather sinister-looking “medico della peste” or the plague doctor’s mask with the huge nose. During the plague, doctors would stuff the nose with cloth soaked in aromatics to keep the smell of death away.

The Venetian plague doctor's mask

The Venetian plague doctor’s mask

But the long nose had another use too. At 25cm long, wearers believed the nose protected them from the germs that caused the plague. We now know of course that fleas transmitted the plague so maybe the distance protected the doctors because the fleas couldn’t jump that high off a patient?!

The doctors also wore gloves and carried a stick to enable them to move patients without actually touching them as another precaution. Whether these measures actually saved the lives of any doctors we may never know but certainly they trusted in the masks to keep them safe.

As well as explaining the history of masks, the hour-long demonstration also offers the chance to choose a blank mask and decorate it in any style you want, copying a Venetian pattern or coming up with your own fantasy. Elisabetta explained some of the different decorative styles. Some were masculine like the ones with hatched eyebrows, others more feminine. Other styles were theatrical like the checquered masks, whilst some were left white like the bauta (below) used by the famous womaniser Giacomo Casanova.

The bauta Venetian mask as worn by Giacomo Casanova

The bauta Venetian mask as worn by Giacomo Casanova

I chose the columbina shape, a mask which covers just the eyes, nose and upper cheeks, and adapted a red, gold and black Venetian design. Named after the maidservant in the well-loved Italian play “Commedia dell’Arte”, the mask was originally designed as a theatrical prop for the actress rather than for Carnevale. The mask is held up by a stick or tied on with ribbons, and was typically used by women, whilst men often tended towards the bauta which also disguised the voice.

Designing the decoration for a hand painted Venetian mask

Designing the decoration for a hand painted Venetian mask

But if you think it is easy to paint a decent mask, I can tell you from experience that you’re wrong! It requires a steady hand, a fluid stroke and most of all a sense of symmetry. To avoid a wonky design its best to lightly draw your pattern onto the gesso in pencil first as at least it can be erased if necessary! The paint soaks in fast too and shows the brush strokes so requires careful application. It all takes concentration and clearly Elisabetta and her sisters have had more practice than me!

Hand painting a Venetian carnival mask needs a steady hand!

Hand painting a Venetian carnival mask needs a steady hand!

Hand painting a Venetian carnival mask - my efforts so far!

Hand painting a Venetian carnival mask – my efforts so far!

The final stages are to add ribbons and then to seal the mask with a wax which gives a slightly antiqued finish when polished. The effect is rather striking.

Sealing a Venetian mask with wax to give it an antique finish

Sealing a Venetian mask with wax to give it an antique finish

And although the wearing of masks in Venice was eventually banned under Austrian rule in 1797, they gradually reappeared in the 19th century for private events. Carnevale returned too in 1979 as Venetians celebrated their history and culture once again. And now over 3 million visitors come to the city to party alongside the Venetians with one of the most important events being the competition for the most beautiful mask or “la maschera più bella“.

So next time you’re in Venice, why not stop off at Peter Pan Masks to make a purchase, chat to Elisabetta, Valentina or one of the other sisters, or even have a go at decorating a mask yourself. Which design would you pick? Leave me a comment and let me know! In the meantime, I for one am rather proud of the end result especially now I know the history and process behind the mask. Plus you get to keep your creation as a souvenir so why not give it a go and let your imagination run wild! You never know, you could even win la maschera più bella!! 

Traditional Venetian carnival masks in the columbina style

Traditional Venetian carnival masks in the columbina style

Useful information

Peter Pan Masks website

Campo Santa Maria Mater Domini, Santa Croce, 2118, 30135  Venezia
Tel : 041 716420
Email : valepeter@virgilio.it
Facebook : Peterpanmasks

Lesson costs €30 per person for approximately 1-1.5 hours, should be booked 24 hours in advance plus you keep your mask! Enjoy!!

And don’t forget to leave a Tripadviser review too so others can share the experience!

For more information on Venice’s annual Carnevale check the official website here

!!!Venice Carnevale 2016 opens on Saturday 23rd January and runs through to Tuesday 9th February!!!

Note : This is NOT a sponsored post and I have not been paid to write it, nor am I in any way a part of the business. I have written this because I have done the mask making course twice – once for myself and once with my 5 year old niece – and we both had a fabulous time so we can heartily recommend Peter Pan Masks! Happy mask making!!

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7 Responses to Behind the mask – Traditional mask making in Venice

  1. Fishink says:

    Fab post as ever miss Lizzie. Lovely to see some decorating in progress too. Looks like a wonderful couple of hours well spent. Will you be creeping around Venice in a cape and mask now ? ; )

  2. Wow what a cool experience that must have been! Believe it or not, I’ve been to Venice about 5 times and never got a real mask demo! Although I did buy a lovely one on my first trip. Enjoy life in Venezia! La vitta e bella is definitely true when you live over there! 🙂

    • lizbert1 says:

      There’s always next time and it was very enjoyable, especially learning about the history which Elisabetta was very knowledgable on – there’s loads more to learn than what’s in my post!!

  3. Fantomas says:

    Great, i didn’t know this. The next time visiting Venice i will consider taking a course in making venetian masks. The fees is reasonable, as you can create and keep your personal mask.

    • lizbert1 says:

      Brilliant! Elisabetta, Valentina and their sister could not be more friendly or more helpful! Tell them I sent you and make sure to spread the word!! Enjoy!!

  4. Pingback: Conversant TravellerPeter Pan Masks - the magic behind the tradition

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