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Venice and the High Art of the Mask

Many cultures enjoy the playful freedom one feels when donning a mask. But no place has taken these toys for grownups to greater extremes, both elegant and diabolical, than Venice. Take a richly illustrated tour of the world of Venetian masks and mask-makers in this CRAFTSMANSHIP photo essay.

Theme: The New Stone Age

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When is a real city not real?

When it’s Venice. During Carnival. With masks.

There are hundreds, I think thousands, of Carnivals in the world, but the Venetian version is one of the most famous; every year more people come, drawn not only by the chance to wear (or at least see) fantastic masks and elaborate costumes, but to do so in a place that can seem like something you just dreamed up.

“It looks like a stage set.” I said it myself when I first came here, and I’ve heard it many times since. What better place to indulge in make-believe than in the most make-believe city there is? Or to put on a disguise or frivolous outfit of some sort; to parade, to frolic, to take pictures of parading and frolicking? Carnival and Venice are the Scarlett and Rhett of European culture: they were made for each other.

Carnival means no inhibitions; therefore children, who have no inhibitions anyway, are the essence of Carnival. If you can imagine it, you have a right to be it. “I was inside a Rubik’s cube once,” a Venetian woman recalls. “And I had some friends who dressed up as slices of cake, and every so often they’d come together to make an entire cake. It was all playful. This little boy’s parents wanted to trick us into thinking that a gondolier had been transformed into an angelic cherub, which of course is total fantasy. This toddler obviously isn’t a gondolier – they never throw confetti.

Masks have evolved along with their wearers: Venetians of centuries ago didn’t wear anything like this ensemble, but they would have admired the total anonymity it provides, and given their passion for luxury and excess, they might well have adored this strange extravagance— “part Rio Carnival, part Folies Bergère,” as one mask-maker put it.

However complicated your costume may be (most of the fanciest ones are rented by the day), Venice remains the crucial accessory, magically complementing any design or color scheme, from dreamy to dramatic, from melancholy to romantic, or simply fabulous. After all, the city itself seems to be dressed up and wearing a mask, its palaces and canals so phantasmagoric and always so beautiful. Carnival revelers pretend to be something other than they are, but Venice doesn’t have to pretend anything. It just is, and you will always look good here.

Italy is bestrewn with Carnivals, some of them (such as the one at Viareggio) much more elaborate than the Venetian version, though in admittedly less gorgeous settings. This map of Italy’s 20 regions gives the names of the principal Carnival characters in each town on the list. In the northern cities, such as Venice, the characters often come from theatrical characters, specifically those of the Commedia dell’Arte, the highly stylized, 15th-century improvised comedy (think Punch and Judy shows). Gianduiotto, the famous hazelnut chocolate made in Torino, is named for their own Carnival character, Gianduja.

In the mountains, though, whether Alps or Apennines, Carnival draws its energy from roots still driven deep into prehistoric rituals of protection and survival. These characters often take some animal form—wolf, human-bear, human-deer—that dwelt in the terrifying forests and chasms, and bear names in equally ancient dialects. True Carnival anarchy was born in the depths of cosmic fear: To drive away the dark spirits of winter, open the way for the rebirth of spring, and return the universe once again to its appointed order. The monsters and devils of many Carnivals are designed to keep faith with their primitive founding spirits, let loose to rampage on the understanding that they will be conquered once again.

In 1094, doge Vitale Falier made the first recorded reference to “public amusements” in Venice, to which he gave the already well-known name of “Carnevale.”

These “amusements” must have been considerable, because in 1296, the Venetian Senate formally declared Carnival a public holiday. At first they only intended it to be Mardi Gras (from “Martedi’ Grasso,” or Fat Tuesday), but before long the festival ran from December 26 to Ash Wednesday. And by the 18th century, when Francesco Guardi painted the “Masked Meeting,” the wearing of masks had come to be permitted not only during Carnival, but on various occasions beginning as early as October, when the theatre season opened, and ending as late as June, when the patricians began to decamp for their country estates.

During Carnival, the great mercantile and political juggernaut that was the Venetian Republic paused, devoting its greatest talents—artistic genius, passion for pleasure, and endless amounts of money—to private diversions and public revelry. The 15th and 16th centuries were Venice’s Golden Age, and the expansion of its empire provided riches, established power, created work, and inspired pride. A city that was, as one person put it, “the size of a postage stamp,” had become the envy of Europe, and its Carnival then was arguably even more famous than it is today.

By 1789, Carnival had traced such a dazzling trajectory through Venetian life that when Doge Paolo Renier died, on February 13, the news was kept secret until March 2 so as not to ruin the party.

The quintessential Venetian costume, known since at least the 15th century, is the bauta (pronounced “bah-OO-ta”)—not just a mask, but an entire ensemble worn by men and women alike. Its weird, white, shovel-shaped mask is called the volto (face) or larva (meaning ghost, or mask). A perfect marriage of form and function, this mask covers virtually the entire face, and its bizarre design was intended not only to allow the wearer to eat and drink without removing it, but also acted as a sort of echo chamber, thereby disguising even the wearer’s voice.

Add to this a long black cloak, a length of lace-trimmed black fabric which covered the head and shoulders, and a tricorn hat, and you had an outfit that guaranteed a large degree of anonymity. Venice being a city in which secrets bloom by night and are harvested at dawn, anonymity was something everyone craved, especially during Carnival when the jinks became very high indeed.

Masks not only hid who you were, but what you were: Class distinctions disappeared, to the great relief of everyone. The poorer Venetians might not have worn expensive outfits, but it was entirely normal for the rich to “dress down.” Patricians made the most of Carnival’s freedom, having spent the rest of the year oppressed by social restrictions just as rigid as those the lower classes endured. Carnival in full cry was like 47 Mental Health Days in a row.

photo by Erla Zwingle

Carnival is arguably one reason why the Venetian Republic lasted for a stunning 1,400 years. The city covers a mere 3 square miles, and in the 16th century was home to some 150,000 people, perhaps as many as 200,000. A densely filled vessel like this needed a safety valve; without Carnival, the city eventually would have exploded. “When you put on the mask,” one woman told me, “you throw out all the ballast.”

photo by Erla Zwingle

Today, the last Sunday of Carnival—the peakest of the peak days—can draw as many visitors to Venice as once lived here: roughly 150,000. This mass of people may look like insanity unchained, but the visitors are unmanageable only in their numbers, not their behavior. Venetians of yore would have been dumbfounded by how sedate most of these revelers are, compared to the madness in the old days.

Centuries ago, if Carnival meant you could do whatever you felt like, too many masked people (men? women?) felt like mugging, molesting, or murdering. Laws ensued. The first decree appeared in 1268: No throwing eggs filled with rosewater at people. (The Venetian youngbloods, nicknamed mattacini, or “crazies,” were notorious for hurling “perfumed eggs” at passersby, either by hand or from slingshots.) They thought this was so hilarious that before long hundreds of peddlers were selling these eggs to be launched at friends, enemies, the girl who jilted you, the man to whom you owed money, or total strangers. This prank reached the point where the city was forced to set up nets along the main passageways of the Piazza to protect people during their daily walks.

More laws, decrees, and edicts followed over the centuries. No going out masked at night. No men dressing as women because men (including clergy) were disguising themselves and sneaking into the convents to debauch the holy sisters. Prostitutes (there were some 11,000 of them) were forbidden to wear masks. Married women going to the theatre were forbidden not to wear masks, “to protect their honor.” No masks in the casinos—your creditors need to know who you are. (A loophole was later conceded, allowing masked gambling between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning.) In essence, the government passed laws to control an event whose only reason for being was that there are no laws.

photo by Erla Zwingle

A mask is not strictly required in order to enter the realm of Carnival. Any little item—a butcher’s well-used apron, perhaps? A t-shirt reading “Pest Control,” or your great-aunt’s ancestral shillelagh?—is enough. Among the dependable standbys seen every year are operating-room scrubs, or some ecclesiastical getup, complete with cassock and biretta, and maybe even a monsignor’s purple sash. Men who dress like this for Carnival are often would-be priests who didn’t make it through seminary.

This man is getting into the spirit with a classic mask of the “Zanni,” who was the categorical cunning, buffoonish servant in the Commedia dell’Arte. There are many varieties of Zanni: Harlequin, Brighella, Pulcinella, and Zanni himself, the name being a Venetian nickname for Giovanni. The name lives on in English (“zany”), and also in a common Venetian saying still used today: Far da Zane e da buratin (to “be the Zanni and puppet”) of someone. Saying you’ve been somebody’s Zanni means you’ve been exploited.

photo by Erla Zwingle

“They just stand there and let themselves be admired,” as one exasperated man declared. “Carnival is something you do, not something you look at.” If you’re a tourist, you take pictures for fun. If you’re a professional photographer, you take them to make money on postcards and advertising and magazine articles. Over time, these photographs have created a collective popular image of Venice’s Carnival as dressing up and posing for pictures. Nonetheless, the edgy, elemental spirit of the original, primordial Carnival still survives in children, usually boys, firing lavish garlands of Silly String at people (today’s version of eggs with rosewater). Anyone is fair game, but matrons in fur coats are a prize target because they get so angry, which is so funny. But you’d have trouble selling a postcard of that.

photo by Erla Zwingle

One could avoid the black hole of Carnival simply by avoiding the Piazza San Marco, but if you need to go somewhere on a vaporetto (waterbus), you’ll find yourself facing the same crowds afloat, with even less room. One morning, I wedged myself next to a woman who was dressed as some sort of monstrous butterfly with enormous, multicolored wings that opened on either side of her. Should she have bought an extra ticket—or actually two, one per wing?

None of this surprises Venetians anymore. If you can’t avoid the throngs, you just accept that you won’t be able to walk faster than a somnambulist. Some just stay home, like people do when blizzards strike. Or they leave the city entirely, which many Venetians have found to be the perfect solution to everything.

photo by Erla Zwingle

There are some people—I offer gondolier Roberto Vianello, nicknamed “Cicciolina,” as Exhibit A—who are born seeing the fun in life, and Carnival is just an excuse for more. Carnival is a spirit, not a garment. Your wife’s hat and poncho? It’s Bring-Frivolity-to-Work Day. You prefer feathers, velvet, and beads? Whatever the outfit, if the wearer is happy, it’s Carnival.

photo by Erla Zwingle

Take some sunshine, add music from a wandering quintet, throw in some happy people, and you’ll have dancing in no time. This moment was unadulterated Essence of Carnival, and it wasn’t in the Piazza San Marco but far away in the smaller Campo S. Barnaba.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, “public amusements” like these were spread across the entire city, and they were often much more spectacular than impromptu dancing. Among the most dramatic entertainments were the Forze di Ercole, in which competing squads of Venetian men formed intricate human pyramids—up to eight levels high—while standing on barges. Men also staged battles, sometimes in the form of dances or pretend naval skirmishes, and for those who had gone 11 months without a good rampage, there was also real combat on bridges, where teams pounded each other with fists and clubs, breaking bones, smashing skulls, falling in the water, sometimes even dying. Floating theatres were set up along the main canals, and festive dinners were given for kings and ambassadors on the bridges.

People have painted their faces since they knew the difference between red and blue—for camouflage, to mimic an animal, or for religious ceremonies. In the Carnival of the old days, during the last week of festivities the streets and squares of the entire city were full of people in every sort of costume, milling around amid puppets, jugglers, acrobats, tumblers, fortune tellers, musicians, and all manner of animals, from dogs and monkeys to horses and bears—one time even a rhinoceros—while roaming vendors sold fruit, spices, and exotic food. No wonder tourists came.

photo by Erla Zwingle

But suddenly, Carnival was no more. On February 28, 1797, Venetians celebrated what turned out to be their last Mardi Gras. Two months later Napoleon conquered the city, and Carnival was banned. “Fat Tuesday” came and went every year, but no one celebrated. Then, on February 27, 1979 —182 years to the day after Carnival was banned—music was heard in the Piazza San Marco. Many Venetians remember the moment well. Radio Vanessa, the local station, had joined forces with the Scuola Grande di San Marco to revive the grand old party. Word spread, people came, people danced. The only things missing were masks, but not for long. A few artisans, not thinking about whether Carnival would ever return, had already begun making masks in a small way. Well-made or not, the masks began to sell, and the game was on.

Before long, flamboyant hybrids like this one—part Pierrot, part Lillian Russell, part Las Vegas—imposed themselves on the popular image of the Venetian Carnival.

High-end costumes are rented from some mask or costume shops for $300 or more per day. Masks were (and in some cultures, still are) devised as instruments of magic; made of matter that contained spiritual power, not always benign. The mask-maker often was required to follow specific rituals for protection from this power. Masks were used to stalk prey, and to take custody of the animal’s spirit. “Disease” masks are known in China and Burma as central players in healing rituals, and the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka have created 19 different disease masks designed to terrify. But masks are not all dark and scary. The Inuit, and the Igbo of Nigeria, make comic or satirical masks specifically for merrymaking on a grand scale.

Venetian masks, though, are hardly connected with hunting or healing; their mission in life is mirth and frivolity, with the occasional touch of seduction and glamour.

“The season of Carnival changes the whole world,” wrote Carlo Goldoni, the 18th-century Venetian comic playwright. “Whether you are doing well or doing badly, Carnival cheers you up.” While the artistic creations have become increasingly more stunning, they also blocked everyone’s view of the simple acts of fantasy and whimsy of artisanal mask-makers. “Now,” one mask-maker said, “people are habituated to see a mask in a certain way.”

And so, this being Venice, whose motto might well be: “You want it? We’ll sell it;” a craft was born. Beginning in 1271 (25 years before Carnival was declared a holiday), documents mention a school that taught mask-making, and the techniques, tools, and materials used in making them. Clay, papier-mache’, plaster of Paris, and gauze were suddenly in demand, not to mention all the elements needed – paint, beads, brocade – to decorate ever more lavish versions.

For several centuries mask-makers were considered a sub-category of the decorative crafts, on the same level with, for example, stucco artists. But as Carnival blossomed so did the craft, which was officially recognized with a statute of its own, on April 10, 1436, establishing the mask-makers’ guild. By 1773 there were 12 shops making masks in Venice. There aren’t many more than that today, but now there are at least 2,000 points of sale, from little shops specializing in masks to tobacco shops, newsstands, and kiosks. Most of these tend to sell cheap plastic masks, sometimes credible versions of papier-mâché, but far too perfect to be true (and at a price no artisan could match). Italian law permits an article to be labeled “handmade” if some percentage of the product has been made by somebody’s hands, somewhere. “There was a shop near the Piazzetta dei Leoncini that advertised handmade papier-mâché,” said Mario Belloni, of the artisanal mask shop, Ca’ Macana, “but it was plastic with bits of papier-mâché attached.”

Papier-mâché masks may be delicate, but they are born from heavy chunks of plaster that have been, in a way, turned inside-out. First, a clay sculpture is modeled by hand, then it’s covered with plaster of Paris, which hardens and is removed to serve as the form, or mold, for the mask. Thus a positive object (the sculpture) is used to create a negative object (the plaster mold) that is used to make a positive object (the mask). Many artisans are talented mask decorators, but only a few are also gifted in making the mold. These molds at Kartaruga are only a few of the 3,000 or so that Franco Gabriele Cecamore, the founder, has made since the shop opened in 1980. If you want something that isn’t yet in this collection—a death-stalker scorpion, maybe, or Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra—the proprietors might discuss a custom assignment.

For the past 40+ years, Carlo Setti has been designing, making, and selling masks in one small room on a narrow but very busy street, the “Frezzeria,” only a few minutes from the Piazza San Marco. Born in Modena, he came to Venice for a week (as many do) and he stayed (as many do). He has been many things in his life: drop-out engineering student, puppet-maker, cabaret singer, scene designer, and itinerant actor performing comedies of the Commedia dell’Arte. But when he came to Venice and started making masks, he finally found a way to use his talents in a way that could also earn him a living. “I’ve done different things, but I want to do them well.”

Setti is one of the very few artisans who make masks of leather, a style drawn from another century. Leather masks require time, effort, and skill (this eliminates many would-be competitors); they can be expensive (which eliminates many would-be customers); and the classic masks of the Commedia dell’Arte—his favorites—are something of an acquired taste. But he has made his peace with that.

“Let’s tell the truth,” he said. “If I wanted money, I’d do something else. I do it because I like it.”

Carlo is always working, the radio playing, and he keeps working when potential customers come in. He lets them look, he answers their questions, but he doesn’t explain why his leather masks cost nearly $200 and up. His masks are for sale, but at heart, he isn’t a merchant. The simplest equation is this: He can make a papier-mâché mask in a few hours, but it takes two days to create one of leather. In the photograph above, he has already wet the leather slightly to make it more malleable, and has just begun the process of pressing the leather to the wooden form, anchored by small brass nails. (To watch Carlo make a traditional leather mask, visit the photo gallery in our sidebar.)

But do not imagine that he is a mere leather shaper and dauber: During one of my visits, he corrected a Russian visitor on the family connection between Leo and Alexei Tolstoy. I didn’t even know there was an Alexei Tolstoy.

Leather is the traditional material for masks used in the 15th-century Italian comic tradition known as the Commedia dell’Arte. The characters in these comedies were standard, and their costumes and masks likewise. Harlequin: Chubby, black half-mask, snub nose, multi-colored checkered suit. Pantalone: Wizened, black half-mask, downward-curving nose, red tights, and long black robe. Pulcinella: Black mask, slightly hooked nose, white shirt and trousers. Black was the traditional color for these masks; Carlo supposes that the old mask-makers didn’t have other colors at hand. But he colors his with various tints—purple, green, red—which is the only non-traditional aspect of his work.

Why leather? Because actors tend to sweat, and after a few shows, papier-mâché would be on its way to the boneyard. Leather adapts to the face and lasts for years, and considering the inverse relation between the cost of a mask and the typical income of your average actor, that’s no small consideration. (I do not refer to actresses here, because the female characters in the Commedia dell’Arte don’t wear masks.)

Carlo wouldn’t regard his masks as mere souvenirs, even though he rarely sells them as anything else. To him, they are very real, with a real reason for being. “I think leather is the true mask,” he told me. “Leather is more noble. I feel I’m making something more valuable.”

He looked at me sternly. “If you want to talk seriously about masks,” he said, “we should go back to the Stone Age, when one mask represented the god, and another represented the king who had to die so that his people would live. Everything after that are just toys.”

This is the mask of Pantalone, the linchpin character of the Commedia dell’Arte whom Carlo often played. And yes, he is supposed to look serious. Pantalone is Venice’s own, a caricature of a typical Venetian merchant of the mid-1500s. Elderly, avaricious, gullible, lecherous, he is a simple soul whose suspicions make him easy to trick. The storyline: Thanks to the machinations of his cunning servants, situations get completely out of hand and always end to his disadvantage. Pantalone speaks in the Venetian dialect, which is universally regarded as inherently comic—I have no idea why— and his voice is old and creaky and annoying. And he walks in a slightly bent-over, decrepit sort of way.

As you might be able to tell from all these details, the actor’s face is the least expressive element of the performance. Only the mask is expressive—it identifies the character, and each character represents a mood (mockery, bragging, gaiety, confusion), and therefore it must never vary. Traditions, they’re like cultural seatbelts.

As Pulcinella, Carlo suddenly seems to be smiling, but it’s the happy outlines of the mask’s eyes that create that effect; his own expression hasn’t changed at all.

Masks change the way we look, obviously, but they also can change the way we feel. That’s the whole point. “When you put it on, you see others and yourself with other eyes,” one mask-maker said. “It liberates you.”

Carlo Goldoni, the 18th-century Venetian comic playwright, made the most of the mask’s capacity to liberate. He didn’t wait for reviews of his latest comedy to come out in the paper. He put on his bauta, with mask, after the show and went around the cafés to hear what people really thought of his latest masterpiece. (He thought it was hilarious when he heard his friends saying terrible things.)

“People come in and say ‘I want the typical Venetian mask,’ says Francesca Cecamore, at Kartaruga. “So I show them the bauta. And the people are shocked.” By now, the average customer thinks of as “the typical Venetian mask” as something glittery, rococo, frilly and feathery. Artisans like Francesca work hard to produce what they know tourists want, then must struggle to find time to experiment, try new ideas, surprise themselves. “To copy a mask, you do it quickly,” she said. “But in this work you have to be creative, otherwise you succumb.” Carlo Setti agrees. “I work more willingly for the theatre, even if I make less money,” he says, “because it’s not routine.”

Francesca is Venetian, the second generation of her family to make masks. Her father was one of the small, pioneering group of artisans that brought back masks and mask-making when Carnival was revived in 1979. She has always done this work: “I have to carry it on, because I have it inside me.” And the theatrical world has noticed. Some of the panache of Cirque du Soleil has been created by Francesca.

Francesca uses old techniques in new ways; in this case, she is applying “gold” leaf to the papier-mâché, following the steps more typically used by artisans who gild wooden picture frames. Genuine gold leaf could be used, of course—or silver, or copper—but in this case, it’s the more modest brass. Layers of paint and shellac prepare the surface, which must be perfectly smooth, and the weightless flakes of gleaming metal are glued, varnished, and then coated with a substance that gives an “aged” patina and softens the brilliant shine.

No matter how many masks she’s made, she still loves it. “This work gives me so much energy,” she said. “It’s a drug.”

“Everything happens here,” Francesca said, laughing. “Last spring, a writer brought in her favorite stuffed toy, a little cat, and she bought a rabbit mask for it. A rabbit! She put the mask on her stuffed animal!”

The mother of the mask is the clay sculpture. Mario Belloni, owner of Ca’ Macana (one of several shops that made masks for the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman movie, “Eyes Wide Shut”), has been working sporadically on this piece for several months. Even without the innumerable interruptions, it would not be easy to achieve the expression of “ironic melancholy” he wants, for a mask which he is going to name “Venice.”

Mario envisions this as a major piece, ultimately carrying a large headdress, yet he knows he may not sell many of them. He took the same chance several years ago, creating a helmet-style mask with a huge yellow snail, which sells for $700. The fact that he is making these, though, shows how far masks have come. The Venetians of the old days wouldn’t have wanted a mask expressing “ironic melancholy” either, but in that epoch, nobody thought of masks as something to hang on the wall, which is where most masks today will go. A mask to decorate your living room instead of decorating you is a very modern idea, but it is rapidly becoming a tradition on its own.

“I started making masks because I wanted to live in Venice,” says Belloni, who was born in Genoa. In that heady period after the resurrection of Carnival, a number of mask-makers opened shops. Mario began selling his masks even before he got a shop; like many at the time, he made them at home. “At the beginning, everything went well,” he remembers. “The masks were crooked, kind of ugly… we sold them on the street. People bought anything [we made], because there wasn’t anything else.”

Over time, the economic winds have veered. Tourism in Venice increases about 3 percent a year; some 20 million tourists pass through every year, some for only a few hours. Roughly 75 percent don’t even stay overnight. Their most basic needs are food and souvenirs, and whether it’s Carnival or not, they want a mask.

However, that typical tourist spends an average of only 12 euros ($12.79) per day on souvenirs. The effect on mask-makers is obvious. While the simplest handmade mask might cost $10, there are plastic masks made outside Europe (China is the usual suspect) that are sold for one euro ($1.06). The sheer quantity of masks on sale around the city gives the impression that makers are thriving. But rents rise, costs rise, and shops are struggling.

Ca’ Macana has slowly broadened its scope—by selling online, for example, or furnishing masks for films and shows. Other artisans are following similar paths.

This Zanni mask, which Belloni made in papier-mâché, reproduces the facial ridges that would occur with leather. The character of the Zanni developed in various ways, but he remained the epitome of a country bumpkin living by his wits. In the 16th century, two Zanni emerged to form the perfect pair, striking comic gold: The furbo (“clever”) and the stupido (just like it sounds). Over time, these characters formed archetypes that did extremely well, even without masks: Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Lucy and Desi, the Smothers Brothers. There is no end to this perfect union. The day the world ends, a pair of baffled and indignant Zanni will crawl out of the rubble, yelling at each other.

The most basic mask there is has appropriated the name volto from the bauta, but that is its only link to the Venice of yore. In its virgin state, it is a featureless carapace, its slightly eerie impassivity recalling Pierrot, the forlorn French relative (so sad, so Northern European) of Pulcinella (so unruly, so Mediterranean). Pierrot’s face was a mask in itself, painted pure white, with eyes that seemed to look nowhere, but it has become very popular, perhaps because it is so eager to be decorated.

Craquelé, or crackling, refers to the delicate network of fissures that sometimes appears in the varnish or glaze on oil paintings or ceramics as they age. Because they imply a venerable quality, the cracks are considered beautiful, so they’re often created deliberately. If the humidity is low and the temperature comfortably high, a mask can crackle its way to antiquity in only 30 minutes.

The process is simple: A coat of organic varnish is spread over the smooth surface of the plain mask, and as the varnish dries it tightens, and random cracks begin to appear. The cracks could keep going almost indefinitely, but as soon as the mask-maker likes the pattern, they block it with a coat of shellac. Paint on the colors, and wear.

What people seem to like best isn’t so much the crackling as the shine. “Nobody wants the opaque or semi-opaque effect,” says Mario. “And if we dilute the shellac with water, that makes it very shiny, aggressively shiny. After all that work, the masks look like they’re made of plastic.”

Did someone mention plastic? Marilisa Dal Cason, owner of L’Arlecchino near the Rialto market, has found a way to give that much-reviled material (technically, Italian resin) a new reason to live.

Some 30 years ago, she followed a high-school classmate to Venice from her home in Cogollo del Cengio, a small town (or large village) west of Vicenza. After a few years of making masks for him, she set up her own shop, and it’s been papier-mâché ever since.

But one day not long ago, she looked into a box of plain white plastic masks that she’d been planning to decorate, didn’t like them, and began to cut one up. “And then I thought, why not try something with it?” A nose sliced off a Zanni, the lips removed from a volto, long ribbons sheared from the beak of the Plague Doctor—the cutting is the part she really likes—and then she glues the pieces together into fantastical originals.

This tentacle-y creature (“It’s not an octopus, they have only eight arms”), this multi-pus, is her apex creation—an elegant echo of Maori art. The only thing more exciting than wearing it would be standing next to it on a crowded vaporetto. Working with plastic also seemed like a great way to keep prices down. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Nonetheless, Marilisa is hoping a customer might think, “Bargain! I’m the only person in the world who has this!”

The first time you pretended you were something other than your own wonderful self, you probably imitated an animal. Francesca Cecamore did the same, but differently. “When I was small, my father would tell me some of Aesop’s fables,” she recalled—so far, so normal—“and then he decided to make a mask of the animal in the fable. The first one was an eagle, and then a fox, and it became a game with him, a way to be ‘inside’ the fable.”

Eighty animals later, Kartaruga has quite a menagerie in papier-mâché. Adults look for their favorite animal, either their talisman or something related to their family name. Little boys are usually keenest on predators: dinosaurs, tigers, wolves. Girls like either the little mouse, or the cat, or “more the princess sort of thing.”

And now for the hyper-modern: On the left, two classic masks turned cyborg, thanks to bits of technological detritus (USB thumb drive, batteries, cords, and so on). The centerpiece is Mario’s unsellable snail-on-head helmet, which he says was a self-portrait. To the right, the typical bauta with a tricorn atop (treated with wax and buffed to a soft gleam). On the far right, masks drawn from two of Picasso’s best-known works: the “Minotaur,” made of newspaper-mâché’, and the shrieking horse from “Guernica.”

If costs are high, and customers’ budgets are low, how do mask-makers stay in business? It’s a fair question, and the short answer is “Any way they can.” Carnival is high season, of course, so that’s when they sell the most. Some rapidly produce piles of undecorated masks for merchants who want to paint and sell them. Some rent costumes with their masks. Some, like Ca’ Macana and Kartaruga, offer mask-painting sessions. Some only work during Carnival. And some have closed.

Those who are still dedicated to the craft of make-believe on a grand scale adhere, if unconsciously, to Carlo Setti’s recipe: “A little imagination, a little experience, a little bit of chance.”

Like Venice, Carnival is beautiful in different ways, in different moments of the day. It sprang from mystical depths of fear and hope, overturning logic, customs, and order in one brief, intense convulsion. Its moment had to be in December, when the days leading to the winter solstice saw life subsiding under the power of rigid cold and freezing darkness.

When Carnival ended, whether it was the Roman Saturnalia or the Greek Dionysia, order was restored; and the promise of life was made for another year, shining in the brilliance of the reborn sun.

More stories from this issue:

The Sculptor vs. The Robots

Colorado’s Marble Motherlode

Italy’s Ancient Textile-Printing Mangle

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