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Those Eyes!
If you're on the prowl in Venice, the city's maskmakers have you covered.

By James T. Yenckel
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 18, 1998; Page E01

Eyes peer at you no matter where you stroll in Venice -- and you can't get away from them, if only because strolling is what visitors do in Venice.

Step off the bustling Rialto Bridge, which arches across the Grand Canal, and eyes with a mischievous cast stare from a shop window. Pause to buy an apple at a produce stall in pretty Campo Santa Margherita, and a pair of smiling eyes notes your presence. If you turn down one of the ancient city's many mazelike passageways, don't look over your shoulder. The eyes you see this time may haunt you.

Fantastical eyes, sensual eyes, the majestical eyes of Roman gods and goddesses and the sad eyes of a comical Humpty Dumpty: They are the eyes of Venice's masks, the ornate and varied disguises of a city famous for its Carnival masquerades. In recent years the art of Venetian maskmaking has been resurrected, and nowadays more masks actually are purchased to be displayed on a wall as artworks than to be worn as a way of concealing one's identity. These are not your typical Halloween masks, cheap and flimsy toss-aways; the best ones take days to make and cost hundreds of dollars or more.

A few years ago, my wife and I purchased a handmade papier-ma^che mask from a Venetian craftsman as a souvenir -- the face of an Oriental princess draped in golden finery -- and it has hung on our living room wall as a valued object of great beauty (our view) or as an amusing curiosity (a view I've sensed in some of our guests). Whatever, on a return trip to Venice in October, we vowed to learn more about masks and their role in Venice's past and present. Our special one-day quest took us across Venice, down one canal and up another, to talk to a half dozen of the city's leading maskmakers. Visitors are welcome to watch them work.

Masks of all kinds, as popular for souvenirs now as Venetian glass, are marketed in all of Venice's tourist precincts -- which is why I always had the strange sensation while there that somebody was looking at me. When I glanced up, I usually could spot a mask in a window or on a shelf. Even at the small hotel where we stayed near the museum of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, masks peered down from the walls of the breakfast room. One of our goals was learning how to judge the good stuff from the mass-produced schlock, of which, unfortunately, there is plenty. (One way is to seek out shops, as we did, where masks are handcrafted on the premises.)

During Carnival, the historical pre-Lenten festival celebrated in this country as Mardi Gras (Feb. 24 this year), many of the masks come off the walls and out of the shops to be donned by visitors and residents alike. "We wear them all day," says Mario Belloni, whose shop, Ca' Macana, is filled with his colorful handcrafted masks. "It's a beautiful thing to go through Venice wearing a mask, like the people of Venice once did."

Indeed, during the heyday of the city's carnival in the 18th century, Venetians often wore costumes and masks for several months at a time prior to Lent. These seasonal revelries came to an end in 1805 when Venice fell under the temporary rule of Napoleon, who didn't approve. They were revived, however, in the late 1970s -- this time primarily to draw tourists in the winter when fog rolls across the city and days can be damp and chilly. To warm the spirit if not the ears of its visitors, Venice stages 10 pre-Lenten days of parades, pageants, street shows and gala balls in which masks and costumes are starring attractions.

In earlier centuries, Venice was a city divided by rigid social barriers, says maskmaker Gualtiero Dall'osto of Tragicomica, who markets masks to theatrical and ballet companies as well as to Carnival-goers and tourists. By wearing a mask, he says, "one could gain access to places which were usually forbidden and freely experience things which would have otherwise been pure imagination."

We have not yet made it to Carnival in Venice, but even in fall the city's ubiquitous masks give it the look of an ongoing costume ball. Not everyone is happy with the abundance (or overabundance) of masks that has flooded the city. "To avoid looking like a tourist, don't buy a mask," my snooty Venice guidebook warned. But I am a tourist, and our souvenir mask has reminded Sandy and me day after day just how much we enjoy Venice.

Most cultures make use of masks, often for ceremonial purposes. In Venice, they are designed now primarily for frivolity -- but there are some rules.

Some maskmakers, we learned, favor the city's traditional masks. The best known is the "larva," a plain, sharp-beaked mask, black or white in color, that is worn by both males and females with a tricorn hat and a long black cape called the "bauta." Harlequin, Pucinella, Pantalone, the Dottore (Doctor) and other characters from the commedia dell'arte, the improvised Italian comic theater that flourished from the 16th to the 18th centuries, also are traditional favorites.

Other maskmakers, however, have gone modern in the faces they design while still hand crafting the masks in the old way. As a result, you can find elaborate masks adorned in jewels and feathers that look like something out of a Hollywood musical extravaganza of the 1940s. Many are purposely designed for display rather than wear. Our Oriental princess, minus the jewels and feathers, fits into this category.

Giorgio Clanetti was absorbing the morning sun in the doorway of his ramshackle workshop, Laboratorio Artigiano Maschere (Barbaria delle Tole, Castello 6657), when we showed up. Once a member of a puppet theater group, he turned to maskmaking when the troupe disbanded in 1975. Credited as one of the leaders in Venice's mask revival, he is a traditionalist, favoring commedia dell'arte faces, who delved into history books to uncover the old techniques. Most masks are made of papier-ma^che, he says, although leather is preferred for theatrical masks because they are sturdier.

Typically, a clay mold of the mask is crafted, and from the mold a plaster cast is taken. And then three or four layers of wet paper are brushed inside the plaster cast with a paste of water and flour. A layer of gauze in the wet paper adds strength and elasticity. Once the paper is dry, the mask is removed from its plaster shell, the eyes and nose holes are cut and the mask is painted and coated with wax. "I did not have big problems with papier-ma^che," Clanetti says, "because I learned how to work with it during my past experience with puppets."

Clanetti's shop is about a 15-minute walk northeast from Piazza San Marco, Venice's principal square, and the route there took us through pleasant residential neighborhoods where tourists seldom venture. Our next stop, Il Prato (Frezzeria, San Marco 1770), is in the heart of the tourist area near Piazza San Marco, and its walls feature sleek masks in what manager Jana Volgyi calls the "fantasy" style.

These are ethereal creations, light and frothy and adorned with copper filigree, that are designed mostly to hang on a wall. The most elaborate cost up to $1,500. This was the only place we visited where the workshop wasn't on site.

Yet another modernistic approach is represented by Sanna di Tommaso, an artist whose workshop, La Moresca (Calle Toletta, Dorsoduro 1193), we chanced upon after crossing the Accademia Bridge and turning right. She creates masks with faces that she imagines from 14th century Italy, and then she decorates them with shiny costume jewelry. When she began 11 years ago, her customers tended to be Venetians. But now, she says, she aims for tourists because there are more of them.

Giano Lovato was an actor who made masks for himself, he says, "before I started making masks for other actors and then as a profession." His masks, which fill the walls of his nearby workshop, MondoNovo (Ponte di Pugni, Dorsoduro 3063), feature faces real and imagined of the past and present. They are made to be worn. Here is where you will find sad-eyed Humpty Dumpty; Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry; and colorful portraits of Beethoven, Wagner, Vivaldi and Christopher Columbus.

On we pushed, roughly tracing the western side of the Grand Canal from Accademia Bridge to the Rialto Bridge. Again we passed through quiet neighborhood squares that showed us the Venice of the Venetians. A small cafe, the Trattoria Dona Onesta, caught our eye, and we stopped for a lunch of the house pasta and wine.

Mario Belloni of Ca' Macana (Calle delle Botteghe, Dorsoduro 3172) began his maskmaking career as an architectural student a dozen years ago selling handmade masks on the street. Now his workshop is draped in ornate masks, many of them taken from faces of people and creatures he sees in old paintings. He wants customers to wear his masks during Carnival. "Living in a mask is different from going to a masked ball. It has a strange effect on you. Wear it all day, and at the end of the day you are changed." Basically, he says, you become in part what you pretend to be.

Our final stop was the workshop of Gualtiero Dall'osto, who heads Tragicomica (Calle dei Nomboli, San Polo 2800). A former art student, he greeted us dressed in a paint-splattered smock. He favors traditional masks, featuring characters from mythology, the commedia dell'arte and 18th-century Venice. The magic of Venice, says Dall'osto, is its history, and masks are the art form that most represent the Venetian spirit -- "a spirit of feasting and enjoyment."

That, I think, nicely sums up why we have a Venetian mask hanging in our home.

For more information, contact the Italian Government Travel Office, 212-245-4822.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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