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Venice's Signature Crafts: Masks

When Carnevale was revived in the late 1970s, mask making returned as well, with travelers inspiring its evolution to its current ornate form. Although many workshops stick to centuries-old techniques, none have been in business for more than 40 years.

A key date in the history of Venetian masks is 1436, when the mascareri (mask makers) founded their guild. By then the techniques were well established: a mask is first modeled in clay, then a chalk cast is made from it and lined with papier-mâché, glue, gauze, and wax.

Masks were popular well before the mascareri's guild was established. Local laws regulating their use appeared as early as 1268, often intended to prevent people from carrying weapons when masked or in an attempt to prohibit the then-common practice of masked men disguised as women entering convents to seduce nuns. Even on religious holidays—when masks were theoretically prohibited—they were used by Venetians going to the theater or attempting to avoid identification at the city's brothels and gaming tables.

In the 18th century actors started using masks for the traditional roles of the commedia dell'arte. Arlecchino, Pantalone, Pulcinella, and company would wear leather masks designed to amplify or change their voices. It's easy to spot these masks in stores today: Arlecchino (Harlequin) has the round face and surprised expression, Pantalone has the curved nose and long mustache, and Pulcinella has the protruding nose.

The least expensive mask is the white larva, smooth and plain with a long upper lip and no chin, allowing the wearer to eat and drink without having to remove it. In the 18th century it was an integral part of the Bauta costume, composed of the larva, a black tricornered hat, and a black mantled cloak. The Moretta is the Bauta’s female counterpart; she kept her oval mask on by biting down on a button inside it, thus rendering her mute.

The pretty Gnaga, which resembles a cat's face, was used by gay men to "meow" compliments and proposals to good-looking boys. The most interesting of the traditional masks is perhaps the Medico della Peste (the Plague Doctor), with glasses and an enormous nose shaped like a bird's beak. During the plague of 1630 and 1631, doctors took protective measures against infection: as well as wearing masks, they examined patients with a rod to avoid touching them and wore waxed coats that didn't "absorb" the disease. Inside the nose of the mask they put medical herbs and fragrances thought to filter the infected air, while the glasses protected the eyes.

Following the boom of mask shops, numerous costume rental stores opened in the 1990s. Here you'll find masks and simplified versions of 18th-century costumes. If you plan to rent a costume during Carnevale, it's a good idea to reserve several months in advance.

Updated: 2014-04-10

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