Archive for December, 2015

Dec
12

Masking Venice

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The window at Ca' Macana, near Campo San Barnaba, looks especially dramatic when the sun goes down.

The window of Ca’ Macana, near Campo San Barnaba, looks especially dramatic when the sun goes down.

Now it can be told: My absence from my blog has been almost completely due to my presence elsewhere, viz., the world of Venetian masks.  Specifically, those who make them.  Well, some of those who make them — it wasn’t easy narrowing the field down to four. All this was for “Craftsmanship” magazine’s winter issue.

Certain chunks of time during that period were co-opted by the incessant unpredictables of daily life: Finding a dentist and replacing a large filling which fell out of a molar; replacing the hot-water heater in our little hovel, which is located in a closet literally three steps from my computer; renewing my passport (half a day, what with getting to and from the airport where the consulate is located); opening a new bank account because of new American laws I won’t bore you with.  And so on.  Charlotte Bronte and George Sand and Harriet Beecher Stowe never had to put up with all this because they had servants, for which I will never forgive them.

Back to work: From sometime far back in October till three days ago, I was researching, interviewing, and probing the depths of maskdom (history of, reason for, artisans therefrom, techniques, materials, anecdotes, etc.).  As usual, I overdid it, which meant that the pressure of the final phases (writing, rewriting, rewriting and rewriting) made my brain feel like a decaying swamp plant being turned into a diamond.  The pressure was there, anyway, I can attest to that.

This is pretty much how the month went.

This is pretty much how the month went.

I learned several very interesting things about masks in the process, but two things stand out, and I want you to remember them: First, the best mask-makers are constantly trying new ideas and designs, and second, they do it even though they know the mask probably won’t ever sell. That statement is worth pondering.

I have pondered the one with pleasure and the other with regret, because if you were to judge the range of masks on sale in Venice by looking at what people are wearing out on the street during Carnival, you would conclude that there are about five designs.  At most.  One of many reasons why I regard Carnival as one of the dullest and most stultifying intervals in the Venetian year is precisely because of the freaking monotony and lack of imagination in the costumes and masks.  I can dimly understand the appeal of disguising yourself.  But I cannot understand the appeal of disguising yourself to look exactly like hundreds of other disguised people.  At what point does the concept of “disguise” fail and become merely “normal”?

So here are some photographs of some masks that are sitting right there in shops (or about to be), and I’d like you to give them some respect because they’re quite likely to stay in the shops. Why? I hear you cry. Because people don’t want to spend money for an original work of art they can also tie onto their head.

If for some reason you want to spend the money but inconveniently don’t have it on you at the moment, at least do something different!  You don’t have to be an artist to break out of the mold.  You could buy a cheap white mask and stick crumpled-up chewing-gum wrappers on it and spray it with glitter.  You could throw the wrappers away and stick the gum directly on it.  You could take some Sharpie pens in different colors and write the story of your life all over it.  You could make a tunic out of newspaper and wander around blowing a kazoo and yelling “Hear Ye, Hear Ye” and announcing whatever invented headlines you really wish were true.  You could do a lot, if you start to think about it.

Here is the link to the story, and I am indulging myself bv adding some photographs that didn’t make it into the story, particularly some masks that are as unlike what you see on the street as mulch is from creme fraiche.

http://craftsmanship.net/the-high-art-of-the-mask/

An innocent, inoffensive, though somewhat demonic mask of a male goat is being transformed into a sort of Cyborg version at Ca' Macana. All this will be painted black, OF COURSE. But I like seeing its innards, all shiny and strange, just like a real person.  Or goat.

An innocent, inoffensive, though somewhat demonic mask of a male goat is being transformed into a sort of Cyborg version at Ca’ Macana. All this will be painted black, because of course. But I like seeing its innards, all shiny and strange, just like a real person.  Or goat.

This really kicks the whole "let's pretend we're something else" up a big Picasso notch. The shrieking horse from Guernica out to get more attention than the average boring white carapace.

This really kicks the whole “let’s pretend we’re something else” up a big Picasso notch. The shrieking horse from “Guernica” ought to make a bigger impression than the average impassive white mask.

By which I mean something like this. I am incapable of understanding the appeal of this.

By which I mean something like this. I am incapable of understanding its attraction, unless you are pretending to come from Roswell, New Mexico.  If all you want to do is completely cover your face, the proverbial paper bag does the same trick. They also make white paper bags.

Mario Belloni at Ca' Macana responds to Picasso. Why not be a Minotaur? Have you not often asked yourself that very question? This is your chance.

Mario Belloni at Ca’ Macana responds to Picasso. Why not be a Minotaur, made of newspaper, no less? Have you not often asked yourself that very question? This is your chance.

Like many shops, Ca' Macana has an assortment of masks of characters from the Commedia dell'Arte. This face, though, comes straight from history -- it is one of the earliest masks worn in Venice, and disguised the "Mattacini," or "crazies" -- young bloods who went around hurling eggs filled with rosewater at any- and everyone.

Like many shops, Ca’ Macana has many masks of characters from the Commedia dell’Arte. This face, though, comes straight from history — it is one of the earliest masks worn in Venice, and was worn by the “Mattacini,” or “crazies” — young bloods who went around hurling eggs filled with rosewater at any- and everyone.  Hilarious.

Marilisa Dal Cason at "L'Arlecchino" makes the traditional masks, but is one of the few who also makes the classic "Moreta," a black velvet oval held in place by a button clenched in the lady's teeth.

Marilisa Dal Cason at “L’Arlecchino” makes the traditional masks, but is one of the few who also makes the classic “Moreta,” a black velvet oval held in place by a button clenched in the lady’s teeth.

Seems very awkward to me, but can all those Venetian ladies have been wrong? (Answer: No.)

Seems very awkward to me, but can all those Venetian damsels have been wrong? (Answer: No.)

"The Parlour," by Pietro Longhi (1757) was graced by two ladies wearing the "Moreta." It must have kept the noise down, or at the least they must have walked around sounding like they'd been trapped in a small closet.

“The Ridotto,” by Pietro Longhi (1750’s) was graced by two ladies wearing the “Moreta.” It must have kept the noise down, or at the least they must have walked around sounding like they’d been trapped in a small closet.

Marilisa Dal Cason toils in her shop making mostly papier-mache', but then she heard the call of the plastic.

Marilisa Dal Cason toils in her shop making mostly papier-mache’, but then one day she heard the call of the plastic.

Like this, waiting to be painted.

She looked at a batch of white masks and just began to cut them up, then reassembled the pieces into new designs. Each piece is unique (note rare correct usage). Only one of each is ever made. Customers may or may not respond, but this has sparkled up her brain considerably.

The mask on the right is adorned with a pair or red lips sliced from a plain white mask.

The mask on the right is adorned with a pair of lips sliced from a plain white mask, then colored with the paint equivalent of Wine with Everything lipstick.

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These are either tentacles, or fronds, or tendrils...they'll look even better when they're decorated, I'm sure.

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Carlo Setti works with papier-mache' and especially leather. He made this shiny cranium on commission for an American wrestler who fights in Japan. He wears the mask in his matches.

Carlo Setti at “La Pietra Filosofale” works with papier-mache’ and especially leather. He made this shiny cranium on commission for an American wrestler who fights in Japan. He wears the mask in his matches.

Mashing the damp leather onto and around the wooden mold takes patience and strong digits.

Mashing the damp leather onto and around the wooden mold takes patience and strong digits.

Harlequin can't talk to you right now, he's got his mouth full of nails. Also, he appears to have no teeth. Carlo Setti at "La Pietra Fiolosfale" manages to communicate with him via his amazing hands. I asked why he named his shop The Philosopher's Stone. He said it was supposed to be a kind of good-luck charm, because the stone turned base metal into gold. "Did it work?" "No."

Harlequin can’t talk to you right now, he’s got his mouth full of nails. Also, he appears to have no teeth. Carlo Setti manages to communicate with him via his amazing hands. I asked why he named his shop “The Philosopher’s Stone.” He said it was supposed to be a kind of good-luck charm, because the stone turned base metal into gold.  “Did the name work?”  “No.”

Carlo is the pinnacle of leather mask-making, but I would like the record to show that he's just as good with boring old papier-mache'.

Carlo is the pinnacle of leather mask-makers, but I would like the record to show that he’s just as good with boring old papier-mache’.

Most people buy a mask to hang it on the wall. I realize you can't wear a mask every day, but -- oh wait. Of course you can.

Most people buy a mask to hang it on the wall. I realize you can’t wear a mask every day, but — oh wait. Of course you can.

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