Saturday, February 11, 2017

Venice Carnival 2017 and A Brief History of Mask-Making

Sergio Boldrin of La Bottega dei Mascareri
(Venice, Italy)  Venice is a unique city. Built on the water, tucked safely inside her own lagoon, Venice was once the center of international trade, as well as the publishing industry. The ruling mercantile aristocracy were seafarers, enormously wealthy, and competed with each other to build the most magnificent palaces filled with lush furnishings, art and tapestries. Venetians are good with a boat.

Venetians had their own peculiar customs like gliding around in gondolas and wearing masks. They loved gambling and going to the theater. The first public opera house opened in Venice in 1637, and was so popular that it spawned many others, making Venice the one-time opera capital of the world.

Carnevale - Photo: Cat Bauer
In honor of Carnival, which starts today here in Venice, I am republishing an edited version of a piece I first wrote way back in 2001 for the International Herald Tribune - Italy Daily about the history mask-making. Today, Sergio & Massimo Boldrin still own La Bottega dei Mascareri, creating masks by hand using papier-mâché.

A Brief History of Mask Making
by
Cat Bauer

In a city where there seems to be a mask shop on every corner, it may be surprising to learn that the ancient Venetian craft of mask making was only revived about forty years ago.

Sergio Boldrin is one of the senior mask-makers in Venice, as well as an accomplished artist. When he was a child, there were no mask shops in the entire city. There was no Carnival. During the terrorism and political upheavals in Italy in the 1970s, the wearing of masks was discouraged.

Masks disappeared, along with Carnival, when Napoleon's troops brought an end to the Venetian Republic in 1797. Since then, they've resurfaced and submerged again throughout the decades until being vanquished to the pages of the history books by the 20th century. However, masks staged a spectacular comeback in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a group of young people, including Sergio, brought them once again into the forefront.

As far back as the 11th century, the mattaccino costume was worn by mischievous young men, who, dressed as clowns, would bombard noblewomen with eggs filled with rosewater, inspiring the first official documentation regarding masks: a 1268 law prohibiting the throwing of eggs while disguised. The Venetian government apparently gave up trying to enforce it, however, and resorted to putting up nets along the Procuratie in St. Mark's Square to protect the ladies and their rich clothing. Even in Sergio's day, young Venetian men opened fire on expensively-dressed women with the yolky bombs. "I did throw an egg or two myself as a kid," confessed Sergio. "Venetian boys have been throwing eggs for more than 700 years."

Mask making in Venice can be documented back to the 13th century, though it probably existed much earlier. On April 10, 1436, the ancient profession of mascareri was founded under the jurisdiction of the Painter's Guild. Over the years, masks were used for a variety of reasons -- in the government, the theater, and as a means of disguise. Masks provided the Venetians a degree of anonymity.

The wearing of a mask put everyone on the same level: rich and poor, nobleman and citizen, beautiful and ordinary, old and young. It permitted confidences to be exchanged anonymously -- everything from accusations before State Inquisitors, to a potpourri of sexual indiscretions. Prostitutes practiced their trade without fear of retribution; homosexuals hid their illicit lifestyle. In 1458, it was decreed that men were forbidden to dress up as women and enter convents to commit indecent acts.

Not all masks were used for indelicacies, however. The bauta was worn by both men and women, and was not considered a costume but a form of dress -- required wearing if a woman wanted to go to the theater.  

Il medico della peste had a long beak-like nose stuffed with disinfectants, and, as its name implies, was used to protect doctors from the plague.

Another ingredient in this colorful mix was the Italian theater, Commedia dell'arte. In the 18th century, the renowned Venetian playwright, Carlo Goldoni, brought theatrical masks to the forefront. Pantalone, Harlequin, Colombina and Pulcinella were among the many masks that found their way into the Carnival.

Over the years, Carnival festivities grew more decadent until it evolved into a 250-day event of non-stop parties, gambling and dancing. Social and class distinctions were flipped on their heads, with servants dressing up as masters and vice versa. It was difficult to distinguish a housewife wearing a traditional mask, cape, hood and three corner hat from a nobleman dressed in the same outfit, allowing both to move freely though the city without fear of recognition.

Il Ridotto by Pietro Longhi (c. 1750)
Sergio has been a major force in keeping this early art form alive. Together with his brother, Massismo, he owns La Bottega dei Mascareri. The original shop at the foot of the Rialto Bridge is not much bigger than a closet, and shares a wall with one of the oldest churches in Venice, the 11th century San Giacomo di Rialto.

A second, larger shop is located on Calle dei Saoneri 
at San Polo 2720, operated by Massimo Boldrin and Rita Perinello, where there is an opportunity to watch the mask-makers at work. La Bottega's creations are completely handmade the traditional way, from papier-mâché.

The Boldrin brother's masks have been featured in Harper's Bazaar, Condé Nast Traveler, Orient Express Magazine, National Georgraphic Traveler, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Vogue, as well as many other internationally respected journals, and in numerous TV shows and films, such as "Eyes Wide Shut."



















La Bottega dei Mascareri
San Polo 80 (Rialto)
Tel. & Fax: (39) 041.522-3857
San Polo 2720
Tel.: (39) 041.524-2887
Email:info@mascarer.com

Go to the official Venice Carnival site for information about Carnevale Venezia 2017.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Venice is a unique city. Built on the water, tucked safely inside her own lagoon, Venice was once the center of international trade, as well as the publishing industry. The ruling aristocracy, who were merchants, were enormously wealthy, and competed with each other to build the most magnificent palaces filled with lush furnishings, art and tapestries.

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