Making Venetian masks the old-fashioned way.
If there is one thing more ubiquitous to Venice Carnival than the elaborately costumed patrons, it’s the famous maschera, or Venetian masks. From simple eye masks to more intricate full-face ensembles, masks are available in almost every tourist shop in the city, even outside of the carnival period. But not every item on offer is worth its sparkles. For a true piece of Venetian history and art, look for a mask made in Venice by a company that uses traditional mask making techniques.
Family-owned Ca’macana is one such company. Mario Belloni and Antonella Masnata, both transplants from Genoa, started Ca’macana in the early 1980s after they moved to Venice, drawn in by the city’s beauty and harmony. Their beginnings were humble: they first made masks at home and sold them in the street laid out on blankets. The carnival was going through a resurgence at the time so the business grew. Soon they opened a workshop in Dorsoduro, one of this six sestieri, or districts, of Venice.
More than thirty years later, they are still in that same workshop. And although Ca’macana is well known both in Venice and beyond (their masks played a role in Eyes Wide Shut and, more recently, in Fifty Shades Darker), they have stayed true to their beginnings. They still make masks in the same manner they made them when they started using the traditional techniques Venetians have employed in mask-making for centuries.
It all starts with a block of clay. For Davide Belloni, Mario’s and Antonella’s son and now the General Manager of the company, this is the most difficult but also the most fascinating step of the process.
“This material has no shape, no form and then you imagine something and you transfer your ideas into this unformed material,” he says. A maker can create any mask–from the traditional bauta to a character from the Comedia d’Arte to an entirely new invention of their own.
To produce the right proportions, the Ca’macana artisans refer to photos, old paintings of masked people, or pre-made molds. Most work is done by hand although, at times, loop tools and other sculpting tools may be used. Depending on the complexity of the shape and the skill level of the mask maker, this step can take hours or days.
“It’s the most artistic step that involves both technical skills and imagination,” says Davide.
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Once the clay prototype is ready, plaster is applied to its entire surface, creating what Davide refers to as a “sarcophagus” around the mask.
When ready, the plaster sarcophagus is removed from its clay model, revealing all the intricate details of the future mask.
Ca’macana uses cartolana, wool paper, for their papier-mâché process. Containing a small percentage of wool, this paper is soft yet resistant. It doesn’t shrink and it keeps its form when it dries.
The mask maker wets the paper, covers it in glue, and then—strip by strip—applies it to the inside of the sarcophagus. It usually takes between three and four layers of paper to make a mask. It could take anywhere from 24 to 36 hours for a face-sized mask to dry, so Ca’macana uses a heater to speed up this process.
According to Davide, if a mask maker has done a good job, you can see junctions between different strips of paper but not feel them. The surface of the mask must be completely smooth to the touch.
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Cleaning the eyes and correcting minor mistakes is the next step in the mask-making process.
Once the mask maker is satisfied with the shape, white acrylic paint is applied to the entire surface of the mask.
All masks at Ca’macana look like this right before they are painted.
A mask often combines different techniques and different media. Either one or several artists work on one mask and all painting is done by hand.
Glazing is the last step in mask production. After the mask is glazed, either with a clear glaze or with a glaze that creates an antique effect, it’s set out to dry for several minutes.
In the last few years, Ca’macana has begun introducing a new kind of mask decoration – steampunk- and cyborg-themed designs.
“The cyborg [masks] are like machines or weapons, something half human and half machine. The steampunk are more “elegant” — they [are reminiscent of] the style the metallic machines had at the beginning of their existence in our industrial society,” says Mario.
Davide is the one who creates these designs for Ca’macana using parts of recycled printers, toys, hairdryers, or other electrical appliances. To achieve the metallic undertones David dry-brushes these masks with silver, copper, or gold paint.
In addition to selling ready-to-wear masks made in their workshop Ca’macana’s also offers mask-making and mask-painting classes. You can make your own mask starting from the papier-mâché step–or you can paint a mask that’s already been made. Either way, you’ll get to contribute to the historic mask making process and own a real Venetian mask.