A mask finding mission in Venice shouldn't be difficult. It's easier to find a mask shop here than it is to find a pigeon searching for crumbs under your feet. However, a hand-painted mask made from papier-mache (cartapesta) is getting harder to find. Too many vendors are littering the calli and campi with their cheap factory-made plastic masks, also making it hard for the artisans.
Hidden at the back of Campo San Giacomo dell' Orio is the artisan mask shop of Benor Maschere Venezia. After much window shopping, I knew I'd be buying a mask there, but didn't know I'd also be making one myself.
Mario, the mask maker, gave me a hearty, "buon giorno" and welcoming smile as I walked into the shop. He was behind his work table, which was cluttered with paint bottles and brushes and full of masks in different states of preparation. A variety of finished masks hung on the walls, and large used mask molds filled the edges of the shop floor. One mold was even turned upside down and used as a business card holder. After a short conversation, I told him I had always wanted to learn how to make a mask. Without hesitation, he pulled a chair up to the table and went about clearing a space for me.
The process starts with a design which Mario creates and sends to the sculptor to make the mold. When the mold is ready, it's used to create the blue cartapesta (papier-mache) masks. They then place a white stucco coating over the cartapesta. The mask is reading for decorating once the stucco dries. Because I had never painted a mask before, Mario suggested that I first draw my design with a pencil, as beginners do. After the paint and additional forms of decoration dry, Mario seals the mask with a varnish.
He simultaneously finished painting 5 or 6 masks, explained the history of Venetian masks and Carnevale in Venice, and waited on customers hopping from various languages the entire way. Mario has been making masks for more than 20 years, so he thought nothing of the amount of multi-tasking and language hopping he performed while I watched in amazement and took the entire afternoon just to sketch a very basic design.
The next day I came back and took the entire afternoon to paint my one mask. Again he worked on at least 20, putting the finishing crackle (to give the effect that the mask is old and a little "cracked") onto some and starting others that would have music notes and gold detailing. The gold detailing is done with what is basically a glue gun, then later painted. Of course, he made the process look easy, which it definitely isn't, especially for an amateur.
Two afternoons later, and I had my own personally-made mask. As you can see, I have a long way to go before I'm anywhere near professional mask-making status, but it's a beautiful memento of Mario and the two afternoons I spent with him at his mascheria. I also bought one that he made to add to my collection. It's a character from the Italian Commedia dell' Arte, il capitano.
Mario gives mask-making classes that last 3 hours. The cost per person is 25 euros, which includes a mask, paint, and also a brief history and explanation of the mask-making process. As I did, you get to take the mask home with you after your lesson. It needs to dry completely before you can add the varnish, so mine isn't varnished yet. You can contact Benor Maschere to set up a mask-making lesson at www.benor-masks.com.
Update: I've heard from readers that some have had a hard time scheduling classes, which is understandable as it is a small shop. Below are other shops that hold more formal classes. Carnevale time is the busiest season for maskmakers in Venice. Classes during Carnevale might be harder, and even impossible to book. If booking during this time, I would advise to book well in advance. Thanks to Monica Cesarato of Venice for providing the information.