What I should know before buying an original Venetian mask?

Join guest blogger, Justin Patulli, as he takes on you on a journey to Venice to educate you on what you should know before buying an authentic Venetian Carnival mask.

I’ve yearned to visit the world’s most enchanting place, Venice, for many years. Epitomizing the term ‘one-of-a-kind’, the beauty of this city can be largely attributed to the fact that it’s an engineering miracle. This speaks to the inherent artistic expression of the Venetian people, found both in the city’s architecture and in its traditions, like Carnival. Deciding that the time has finally come for me to visit this marvellous city, I set out on a mission — to find the perfect Venetian Carnival mask to bring home as a memory of this long-awaited vacation.

After landing in Venice and settling into my hotel, I’m ready to venture out and start searching for the perfect mask. Strolling through the city’s maze of alleys, it soon becomes evident that finding ‘the one’ is going to be a challenge. Everywhere I turn, I see an assortment of colourful masks, whether it be in shop windows or on street vendors’ carts. They’re everywhere!

Original Venetian masks are hand-made according to a historical tradition

At this point, my mind is filled with questions and I decide it’s time to ask the pros for help. I enter a small shop just steps from the Rialto Bridge and see a
group of mascareri (the Italian term for mask-makers) hard at work. These are true artists who have had this craft passed down to them from generations past. Marvelled by their precision and pride for this tradition, I’m confident that they will be able to help me better understand why there’s such a variation in the pricing of masks.

They begin telling me that Venetian Carnival masks first made their appearance in the 13th century as a way of concealing one’s identity. This anonymity allowed individuals of different social classes to interact with one another during the festive period, something strictly prohibited during that era. So this now iconic symbol of the city was more than a mere costume, but a temporary ticket of freedom.

Authentic Venetian masks are made of natural high-quality materials only

After the mascareri explain the historical significance, they tell me that the most commonly used materials during that era were papier mâché, ceramic, and leather. And while papier mâché is the most time consuming, the final product is far more superior than the others, making it still the most sought after. It’s a method that allows the mascareri to give each mask its own unique personality through the use of embellishments like fabric, glass, crystals, and feathers. They tell me that in order for a mask today to be considered authentic or original, it should be made from one of these three materials.

Much to the dismay of the mascareri, many of the masks on the market today are merely imitations made abroad. Most are made of inferior materials like plastic, using moulds instead of being handmade. This allows them to mass produce a large volume of masks at a minimal cost. While they’re able to sell their masks for so little, the mascareri agree that it essentially diminishes the respect for an art form that has existed for several hundred years.

To summarize, they tell me that if a mask is going to be considered authentic or original, it needs to be handmade and crafted using one of three materials mentioned earlier — papier mâché, ceramic, or leather. And it should ideally be made in Venice, or in Italy at the very least.

Venetian masks made in Italy must be certified by legislation

After meeting with the mascareri, I stop for a coffee and decide to do some additional research online. I discover that, according to Italian legislation, there are several elements that are crucial in assuring a consumer that they’re purchasing an authentic Venetian Carnival mask, which include:

  • A non-removable label on the inside of the mask, indicating the producer, place of production, and VAT registration number (or P. IVA) for tracing purposes. This is required by Italian law, regardless of the product’s country of origin. Merchandise absent of such labelling is not considered legal.
  • ‘Made in Italy’ certification from an independent organization to confirm that the product has been created in accordance with Italian legislation, which covers issues such as the toxicity of paints used, sterilization of feathers, etc. A third-party certification guarantees the claims made on the label mentioned above are accurate and that the item has not been self-certified by the vendor as ‘Made in Italy’.

As someone who strongly believes in supporting local artisans and their traditions, I’m happy that such safeguards exist. It’s helpful when making a purchase both in-person and online. In retrospect, I realize that most online vendors omit information pertaining to the materials used, location of production, etc., and focus mainly on the design of the mask itself. This can be a red flag for consumers, indicating that an item may not be authentically ‘Made in Italy’.

Why original Venetian masks are the best choice?

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have come directly to the source and to have learned more from the mascareri. It’s given me a greater appreciation for their work and has helped me understand why authentic masks are priced the way they are. Understanding how much time and precision goes into creating each of these masterpieces, all while following rigorous standards, one wouldn’t think twice in paying for a more expensive mask because it equates into quality.

I would encourage you to learn more by reaching out to the mascareri online. They will be delighted to share their wealth of information with you. The only thing they won’t be able to help you with is selecting a mask that speaks to you! Unfortunately (and fortunately), they’re all so incredibly beautiful, making it that much harder to choose the right one!

Vi auguro buon shopping!