Behind The Art Of Venetian Mask Makers

There’s nothing more iconic in Venice, Italy than the city’s world-famous Carnival and the dramatic hand-painted masks worn by participants during the festivities.

The beautifully crafted paper-mâché masks which come in all shapes, colors and idols are an indispensable symbol of Venice. The use of masks in Venice can be traced back to over a thousand years into the Middle Ages.

People may be surprised, however, to learn that there was a period in which Carnival and masks completely disappeared from Venice for a long while.

Tragicomica masks
PHOTO NADIA CHO

“Carnival is a very ancient tradition here in Venice, but it was a tradition that disappeared with the coming of Napolean, with the Industrial Revolution, then with the two World Wars. It never happened again. Masks disappeared completely from Venice.

Whereas in the 80’s, a group of students, choreographers, scenographers, including my father, started retaking the tradition; looking at the books, what was the mask, how it was made. And they started doing them again, creating them again. And slowly and slowly, it became what we know nowadays in which Carnival happened to be so important again for the city.” – Tobia Dall’Osto of Tragicomica

Tragicomica workshop
PHOTO NADIA CHO

 

Tragicomica workshop
PHOTO NADIA CHO

Thus, it was thanks to a group of curious students and artists in the late 70’s and 80’s who took it upon themselves to relearn the ancient techniques and designs of mask making, that Venetian masks and Carnival was reborn and brought back to Venice in the 21st century. There are very few artisan maskmakers left in Venice, who still create paper- mâché masks by hand using the original techniques from ancient times.

The oldest workshop and mask shop of this kind is Tragicomica. Gualtiero Dall’Osto was one of the artists who were influential in the movement to reintroduce Carnival and masks to Venice in the 80’s. Any visitor to Venice must visit Tragicomica shop, as it’s like entering a magical, glittering trove of treasures. Gualtiero’s son, Tobia Dall’Osto, taught us the history behind Carnival and Venetian masks, as well as the function a mask serves in regards to identity.

“It’s really difficult to see the distinction between masks, that we usually intend as something fake. To have a mask is not something seen as positive, because it means you’re not showing your real personality, your real identity. Oscar Wilde said, ‘Give me a mask and I will tell you a truth,’ and this is so connected with Carnival… Put on a mask to do what we want in order to reveal our very true desires and instincts. So, what is a mask? Is it a cover of your identity and of your desires? Or is it a way, a tool, in order to fully accomplish yourself and what you want to do?” – Tobia Dall’Osto

Ca’Macana is another workshop which makes Venetian masks by hand. It’s one of the best-known mask workshops in Venice, as its creations have been featured in high-profile productions such as Eyes Wide Shut and worn by celebrities such as Nicki Minaj at the VMAs. Davide Belloni, the second-generation owner of Ca’Macana, takes pride in showing visitors how all of their creations are handmade from start to finish.

Venice Carnival
PHOTO NADIA CHO

“We make everything by hand, strictly by hand. And we follow the old traditions of the ancient maskmakers in Venice. What we do is making masks out of paper, so paper-mâché. We are always happy to to share with customers and visitors what we know about the ancient tradition of maskmaking. We are always willing to show how we make everything, because we want to show that everything is made by hand.  And that’s important to distinguish what is original from what is imported and created somewhere else.” -Davide Belloni of Ca’Macana

Sharing their knowledge of original maskmaking techniques is central to keeping this Venetian tradition alive for artisans. Both Tragicomica and Ca’Macana offer workshops in mask decoration as well as longer courses in creating paper-mâché masks completely from scratch. Tragicomica also offers costume rentals for those who wish to live the full fantasy of attending a masquerade ball or dressing up for Carnival.

Tragicomica masks
PHOTO NADIA CHO

The stunning handcrafted Venetian masks are essential to the vibrant culture of this legendary Italian city. Thanks to the artisan maskmakers of Venice, masks and Carnival have found their place in the 21st century, and ancient maskmaking traditions continue to be passed on. Be sure to visit both Tragicomcia and Ca’Macana the next time you travel to Venice, in order to experience this integral part of Venetian culture.

Nadia Cho

Communications Associate

As the empowered female behind the blog: International Women of Mystery, Nadia reps Team JST traveling the world in search of exclusive features on hidden gems and cool hotspots. You can find her exploring metropolitan cities or lounging on tropical beaches.

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