March 10, 2006

Venice mask makers give old tradition a new twist

By Jane Barrett

VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Come Carnival time, Mario Belloni
is a busy man.

His shop, tucked away in a narrow Venetian street, is
bursting with tourists trying on masks for the city's famous

An extravagant sun-shaped shield or a mask inspired by
Picasso's cubist paintings? Adults struggle to choose the
perfect accessory for richly decorated costumes while children
play with cat's-eyes masks sparkling with sequins.

The masks -- papier mache feats of imagination and design
-- trace their roots back centuries to a time when Venetian
nobles got up to not-so-noble behavior under the comforting
cloak of anonymity. But the line is not unbroken.

Belloni, who has been making masks for a relatively short
25 years, says he is rediscovering the past, rather than
continuing an ancient tradition.

"People expect us to be the 17th generation of mask makers
working from the same shop and with the same techniques as our
ancestors," he said. "It seems sad to shatter people's
illusions but really we've just been making it up as we go

Today masks are a piquant part of Venice's pre-Lenten
carnival extravaganza. But they used to be so integral to city
life that specific rules were drawn up to govern their use.

Paintings by Venetian artists like Canaletto show people
wearing the black cape and white mask that became something of
a uniform in La Serenissima, as the Republic of Venice was

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Venetians could hide
their faces and identities to gamble, flirt, party and beg for
about eight months of the year.

The authorities would occasionally try to limit the use of
masks but the tradition was only stamped out by the Austrians
when they took control of Venice in the 18th century.

The mask was considered a license for licentiousness, a
danger to society and an easy cover for spies acting against
the city's new rulers. It was quickly outlawed.


When Venice resurrected the carnival in 1979, Belloni dug
out historical documents to resuscitate the art of masks.

"We were architecture students with a decent understanding
of art so we started playing with papier mache and copying the
old designs you see in paintings," he said.

The easiest mask to copy was the "bautta" -- the
traditional white, hook-nosed mask that was worn under a black
cape and held in place with a tricorn hat.

More fanciful was the mask based on the long, curved beak
worn by the "Dottore della Peste" or plague doctor, who stuffed
the nose full of herbs to kill off the smell of death.

"People will tell you it was a gas mask to keep out germs
but actually they thought the plague was passed on by spirits
so they scared them off by wearing this terrifying costume,"
Belloni said, ducking between masks in his shop Ca' Macana.

Today, traditional masks often lose out to more fanciful
designs dreamt up by Venetian artisans, who provided masks for
the orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick's film "Eyes Wide Shut."

Among new favorites are gold faces shaped like leaves,
colorful court jesters or masks painted with scenes of Venice.

"This is the evolution of our art, serving tastes as they
change," said Guerrino Lovato, surrounded by masks of famous
composers and film stars in his Mondonovo shop.

Down the street at Casin dei Nobili, Stefano Oliani has
merged masquerade and high fashion, selling masks encrusted
with pearls and crystal and bearing no obvious price tags.

"We can only make 10 at a time and they take three days
each so we keep busy in the slow season getting ready for


While Lovato, who also produced all the papier mache
decorations for the recently restored La Fenice opera house, is
happy to cater for new tastes, he laments the fact that
tourists often want quality work at bargain-basement prices.

"Tourists come to Venice and they want a mask but they
complain that the real ones are too expensive," he said,
carving a new face in his workroom-cum-showroom.

"Some shops are now outsourcing production to get the price
down, mass-making masks elsewhere in Italy, Eastern Europe,
even, I've heard, in Asia. Can you believe it?"

While some may be moving away from Venice's misty canals,
Belloni is keeping the new tradition alive at home by teaching
tourists how to make their own.

Clay moulds lie around his paint-spattered workshop near
the Accademia Gallery. They will be coated in plaster to make a
negative, which is then covered with absorbent paper and glue.

The finished product should be flexible enough to bend
around the face without breaking. Less refined masks are
sometimes covered in plaster to give them a smooth surface.

"Some of the ones you see in tourist shops are like china
-- so uncomfortable and false," muttered Lovato, whose goods
cost from about 50 euros ($60) for a Commedia dell'Arte theater
mask to more than 1,500 euros for a gold-leaf Tutankhamun.

"If you want the real thing, you have to pay."