Keeping Venice’s Carnival mask tradition alive anywhere and everywhere
This article was written by travel industry professional Justin Angelo Patulli, an Italian-Canadian who is passionate about keeping Italian artisanal traditions alive.
As we enter into the second summer of the pandemic (and hopefully the last), travellers worldwide anxiously await the day that they are able to travel safely and freely again. Some may perhaps want to revisit old favourites while others are ready to explore new destinations. One destination that comes to mind at the top of my travel wish-list is Venice. This one-of-a- kind city is truly magical and evokes an array of visions in ones mind, but there a few distinct symbols that come to mind for most. Strolling through the city’s maze of streets one can find countless shops and street vendors selling elaborate masks that were worn by Venetians during the Carnival season (known as Carnevale in Italian) in eras past. But beware because not all are created equally.
The Carnival season is celebrated across the world and each place has their own distinct qualities that make them special. This is reflected in both cuisine and costume. If you’re lucky to visit Venice during Carnival, you are sure to eat well as the streets and canals are filled with the perfume of sweet treats. The Venetians are renowned for their bitesized appetizer-like creations known as Cicchetti, which are savoury in nature and served as an accompaniment to an Aperitivo. But being a very artistic culture, they have also mastered the art of making bitesized desserts, some of which are exclusively served during Carnival. One such example are the frittelle or fritole, a sweet dough that is filled with raisins and pine nuts, then fried and dusted with powdered sugar. This is perhaps the most traditional variation, but one thing is certain, that the smell and taste are both incredible. And while I do hope to one day (soon) have the opportunity to taste these sweet delights, thanks to the internet, you and I can recreate these gastronomic traditions at home.
On the other hand, if left to our own devices, most of us are unable to recreate the other facet of Carnival I mentioned earlier, which is the costume aspect. The origin of the beauty and fine artistry of the Carnival masks (known as Maschere di Carnevale in Italian) can be traced back to the 13th century when they were constructed from either papier-mâché or ceramic. One would think that they were worn simply for their aesthetically pleasing appearance, but they were in fact worn as a means of disguising the identity of the wearer. These beautiful masks served as a ticket of freedom for both those of the perceived higher and lower rankings of Venetian society. It allowed them the opportunity to frequent the same parties without being labelled. In essence, a member of nobility was equal to a member of a humbler class. While they are still worn during the Carnival season, nowadays they are simply symbolic and synonymous with Venice and its fine artistry.
Having spent more than a year longing to visit Venice and experience its traditions, I figured there had to be something or somewhere that made it accessible even from a far. After researching online, I stumbled across this website and was very impressed with the product offerings. As I mentioned earlier on, not all masks are created equally and often when at a destination we purchase souvenirs based on impulse rather than with mindfulness. Caught up by all of our excitement, we fail to remember the importance of supporting local artisans who are working tirelessly to keep traditions alive. Unfortunately, the masks sold by street vendors are most often imitation pieces that are not made by a local artisan. Venezia Maschere by La Gioia offers the world artisan quality masks and has been doing so since 1970. In fact, it is the only brand of Venetian Carnival masks with the “100% Made in Italy” Certification, which is issued on an annual basis by the Italian Ministry of Economic Development and Industry. This ensures that your purchase is entirely handmade in Italy with only the finest quality materials.
I have been browsing this website regularly and must admit it is very difficult choosing which one (or ones) to purchase because there is such an expansive variety of masks being offered by Venezia Maschere by La Gioia. There is something for buyers of every price point and whether the purchase is for yourself or a gift, you will be guaranteed to have a true piece of art. Some may have the opportunity to travel again this summer, while others may not be able to. If you’re a resident of a jurisdiction whose public health guidelines afford you the opportunity to travel, then I would recommend you visit the shop in person and make the most of a quieter, less crowded Venice. And perhaps you could even purchase a mask ahead of time, instead of worrying about packing it into your luggage. On the other hand, if you’re unable to travel this summer then an online purchase from this shop can give you a piece of Venice, delivered right to your doorstep.
Now let’s all do our part and show our support for these incredible artisans!
Here’s just a few of my favourites:
Jolly Tonino Bavero – Medium
In this ceramic version decorated entirely with stuccos and gold leaf is applied the particular cone-shaped hat.
Volto Leone Canal Grande
Wearable papier-mâché mask embellished by the lion of Venice and with view of the Grand Canal of Venice.