Can a costume shop resurrect a dying city?
Many see Venice as a dead city, a sinking artefact that’s been co-opted by out-of-towners and transformed into a sort of living museum. Unimpressive restaurants and overpriced hotels chase alongside the labyrinthine, dirtied waterways, and it’s quite difficult to fine anything of genuine value in this touristy city.
Yet while Venice may no longer hold the charm or cultural cachet it once did, it hasn’t yet flatlined. The northeastern Italian city is still alive, buoyed by an IV drip comprised of the famous Biennale di Venezia (which includes the beloved Venice Film Festival), a vibrant Piazza San Marco, and, perhaps most notably, the week-long Carnevale, an annual festival full of pagan debauchery capped off by Mardi Gras and all the music, dancing and masquerading one could imagine.
With artists, professionals, and young revelers coming in from all over Europe to fête the final week of Lent, local Venetians have created a variety of small businesses to meet festivalgoers’ needs. Not all are tourist traps though. In the shadow of the Rialto Bridge, just steps from the Grand Canal, lies La Bottega dei Mascareri. Brothers Sergio and Massimo Boldrin run this fascinating handmade mask shop, where you can purchase a massive variety of plaster-and-papier-mâché masks ranging from a 40-euro Casanova mask to a 1,550-euro, gold-leafed Tutankhamen mask.
The brothers are usually both around the shop, and if you chat them up, they’ll often let you in on Venetian secrets. Take for instance, the fact that in the late-1700s many Venetians wore masks outside year-round, not just during the week preceding Easter. They’ll also tell you that the well-known beak-shaped mask is sometimes called the “plague doctor costume” thanks to its use as a storage device for medicinal herbs during the Plague in the mid-17th-century.
Dig a little deeper and they’ll also let you in on their creative process. While many mask shops in Venice simply import factory-made products (often from China), the brothers make the masks themselves in the back of their tiny shop. Using clay to create the mask’s shape (“the positive”), they pour alabaster over it to create a mould (“the negative”). They then fill it with papier-mâché, topping it off with paint, gold leaves, or lacquer to add character. Although most of the masks are meant for purchase, they’re still very much individual artworks. Their exhibition “Venetian Carenvale: Comedia dell’Arte Satirical Masks and Contemporary Adaptations,” won them strong praise. Perhaps most interestingly, La Bottega dei Mascareri boasts Hollywood credentials, having made nearly eighty masks for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. They are, to those in-the-know, celebrities.
For the cynical, Venice may be a lost cause, too overrun with tourists to merit much attention. Yet to the curious and those willing to explore, treasures like La Bottega dei Mascareri still await discovery. The store is open year-round too, so no need to wait until Carnevale to check it out.