A mask-making workshop in Venice is definitely a fun way to have a unique experience and personal souvenir. Get creative at Ca’Macana.
Mention Venice and images of gondolas, St Mark’s Square, the Grand Canal, and Carnival immediately come to mind—maybe even the Rialto fish market, cicchetti, and a Spritz too, especially if you’ve been to Venice at least once.
Aside from these typical tourist experiences, I am intrigued by what happens behind the scenes, and I tend to gravitate toward unique, out-of-the-way places whenever I travel.
The elaborate and colorful Venetian masks worn at Carnival have always amazed me. I decided to seek out one of the oldest and finest mask-making workshops in Venice, Ca’Macana.
History and mystery behind the masks
The wearing of masks in Venice dates back to the 13th century, when laws were first passed to regulate masks. Little is documented as to the reasons behind the laws, but it may have been to control some publicly disruptive behaviors: one such rule was targeted at masked men throwing eggs at women who were out for their passeggiata, or walk. Another banned the masks that were worn in convents and gambling establishments, hiding identities that allowed them to get away with immoral activities.
During the 17th century, Venice’s rigid class system kept citizens in their place. This prompted Venetians to wear masks throughout the year to hide their social class; with a disguise, a person could “let loose” and pretend to be anyone. Behind a mask, everyday citizens were indistinguishable from wealthy landowners and nobles. The poor mingled with the rich, and the rich could partake in questionable activities that high society rules forbade them.
Laws were passed that permitted Venetians to wear masks beginning on the Feast of Santo Stefano, December 26, up until the start of Carnival on Shrove Tuesday in February. This all ended in the late 18th century with the fall of the Venetian Republic, and Carnival and mask-wearing were banned by the King of Austria, who now was in power. The use and tradition of wearing masks declined rapidly and disappeared entirely for close to two centuries. It was not until 1979 that Carnival was revived and the mask-making shops began to emerge once again in Venice.
Today, the mask-makers at Ca’Macana “craft authentic handmade masks in the same way Venetian artisans did 800 years ago.” The masks featured in the 1999 Hollywood Stanley Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, were created here. The workshop and store is located in the Dorsoduro district, known as the student and artisan district and “the real Venice,” where galleries and churches can be found, as well as a lively nightlife—perfect to sip a glass of sparkling Prosecco Superiore di Valdobbiadene of the Veneto during aperitivo.
Where to make your own Venetian mask
From the moment I entered the shop, I was mesmerized by the huge and varied selection of masks: elegant, scary, fun, and everything in between. In the Ca’Macana workshop, the lovely Fiorella guided myself and a few others in the mask-painting experience. The walls were covered with inspiring photos of completed masks, and countless bottles of paints covered the surfaces.
Fiorella directed us to each select a papier-mache white mask and then provided us with aprons. The atmosphere was light and fun as we set to work. I chose the traditional full face mask known as the volto, while others chose the half-mask known as dama, or the gatto, which is shaped like a cat. We then selected our paint and began coloring our masks with a large paintbrush similar to what one might use to paint woodwork in a house. Fiorella taught us how to speckle it, giving the mask a completely new look, and between painting stages we dried our masks with hairdryers.
When the masks were almost complete, Fiorella painted on clear varnish just before the final step: choosing decorative accents such as rhinestones, feathers, and ribbons. Each of our masks was attractive and we were laughing and taking photos as if we had been long-time friends. In one hour I had painted my own mask, which made for a special, personal Venetian souvenir. Priceless!
As an added treat, Fiorella handed each of us a book to take home: Maschere a Venezia by Mario Belloni, which details the history and techniques of mask-making in Venice. All in all, it was a memorable and authentic afternoon in Venice away from the crowds.
Want to make your own Venetian mask?
Phone: +39 041 2776142
Address: Dorsoduro 3172
Types of Venetian Masks
Traditional masks worn in Venice during Carnival generally fall into two categories: Commedia dell’Arte masks and Carnival masks. Those derived from Commedia dell’Arte, the improvisational theatre so popular in the 16th through 18th centuries where masks take on the main roles, are patterned after the characters in those plays. Examples are Harlequin, Pulcinella, Pantalone, and Arlecchino.
Some of the most popular masks worn during Carnival in Venice
Bauta The most widely-used Venetian mask. A simple white mask covers the face with a square jaw and large chin that ends in a point. It covers the mouth and allows anonymity while allowing the wearer to eat, drink, and talk while masked. This mask is usually worn with a tricorn hat and red cape.
Volto The rounded, simple full face mask showing the nose and lips. It is most closely associated with Carnival and guaranteed full anonymity.
The Plague Doctor Dating back to the 1500s, this bizarre-looking mask with a long beak is also known as Medico Della Peste. It usually covers the forehead and the nose but sometimes can cover half the face. It was used by physicians as a filter for germ-filled air during the plague when they filled the beak with protective, medicinal herbs.
Pulcinella A half-face mask with a long nose resembling a beak and slanted eyes, this was made famous in the movie The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino.
Columbina A colorful half-mask covering the eyes, cheeks, and occasionally the nose. Usually heavily decorated.
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