Venetian Mask-Making

Take your fill, let the spectacle astound you!
Take your fill, let the spectacle astound you!

Masquerade! Paper faces on parade, masquerade! Hide your face so the world will never find you...

Hand-crafted, high-quality Venetian masks are magnificent, breathtaking works of art. With their bright array of colors, crystals, feathers, and fabrics, these beauties are well worth their asking price. Whether decorated with aged sheets of music, satin, lace, or grotesquely long noses that would make even Monsieur Cyrano start and look again, Venetian masks are representative of the exciting, vibrant history that surrounds the floating city.

A Quick History Lesson in Debauchery

Faces! Drink it in; drink it up, till you drown in the light and the sound! But who can name the face?

During the 13th century, the citizens of the Venetian Republic were, by reputation, exceedingly wealthy, luxurious, and decadent. Over time, they began to realize that if they concealed their identity, they would then be able to carry out their daily lives in secrecy and without fear of retribution. With so much personal wealth, citizens often found themselves making deals and agreements with other citizens outside of the eyes of the law. Hence, the wearing of a mask became increasingly popular.

When wearing a mask your identity is concealed and so your social status is not known to others, which allowed servants and business owners to be treated equally and curtailed many forms of inequality or prejudice. Nevertheless, knowing that there were to be no repercussions of their actions, as no one could be identified, the society began to behave more lavishly and without fear. As a busy city with travelers and business visitors descending upon them daily, sexual promiscuity became common place and gambling was known to be occurring all through the day and the night, all over the city.

The least expensive mask was the white Bauta, smooth and plain with a short, pointed nose intended to disguise the wearer's voice; in the 18th century it was commonly accompanied by a black three-cornered hat and a black cloak (as in the infamous scene from Amadeus). The pretty Gnaga, which resembles a cat's face, was used by gay men to "meow" proposals to good-looking boys.

With such rampant decadence and immorality, it's little wonder that political and religious leaders desperately tried to limit the wearing of masks to the annual holy festivals, like Carnivale. After the 1100s, the masquerade went through periods of being outlawed by the Catholic Church, especially during holy days. However, such policies were rarely observed, such as when local authorities declared the months between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday free for Venetian mask-attired decadence. This period evolved into Carnivale as we know and love it, the pre-Lent celebration meaning, "remove meat." Although Carnivale lost popularity as Venice's cultural production and faltered during the Enlightenment, it was officially reintroduced in 1979, and continues to dazzle tourists and other visitors to Venice.

Papier-Mâché

Masquerade! Every face a different shade . . . Masquerade! Look around - there's another mask behind you!

The papier-mâché ("stuck-paper") process seems deceptively simple. In theory, all one needs is a good mold, some scraps of paper, some sticky glue-like paste, and viola, you have a false countenance staring at you through empty eyes. However, the true artistry of the Venetian mask-makers is their ability to transform these pale, impassive visages into something that is alive and provocative.

According to the artisans at La Fondazione, the mask-makers first create a mold that is made from a combination of clay, liquid plaster, and glue. Once the mold has dried, it is then lubricated with a removal agent, usually Vaseline. Next, it is filled with multiple layers of a special paper. Each piece of paper has to be a precise size and shape, making it easier for the artists to press them into the mold and cover its entire surface numerous times. The paper is very thin, and these various, absorbent layers will create a mask that is flexible, but also durable. Once the paper has been wetted, it is then spread with carpet or wool glue. Ideally, when the mold is placed on a heat source to dry, it should be completely smooth and light.

After the eye holes have been cut in the rough mask, it's ready to be decorated and transformed using acrylic colors, gold and silver leaf, lacquer, varnish, precious fabrics, paste, aging, feathers and more. Those at La Fondazione use specific techniques from painting, restoration, costume making and many other arts.

Leather Masks

Faces . . . Take your turn; take a ride on the merry-go-round . . . in an inhuman race!

Although not papier-mâché, some Venetian mask-makers also use leather to mold masks that are just as marvelous as their paper counterparts. Interested in making one for your self? Here's how:

1.) Get yourself some Veg-Tanned leather, about 4-6 oz (or maybe 6-8 if you want a thicker, heavier mask); it's available for purchase either online or in some specialty stores

2.) Cut out the rough shape you want (I'd suggest making a paper pattern first)

3.) Soak the pieces overnight IN THE FRIDGE with only enough water to soak through the leather and make it nice and pliable, but not dripping wet. The next day, your leather will be ready for sculpting.

4.) Wash your face well to get rid of any oils on your skin, and place the wet leather on your face to shape it. If your leather has been prepared properly, it will be dry enough to retain the contours of your face, especially if you're patient and just let your body heat do some of the drying for you.

5.) As the leather dries, you can begin to exaggerate whatever features you want, as leather is incredibly pliable.

6.) Once the leather is dry, you can paint it and trim it in any way you want; just make sure the paint is suitable for leather (water-based acrylic paints should be fine).

Masquerade! Take your fill -let the spectacle astound you! Masquerade! Burning glances, turning heads . . . Masquerade! Stop and stare at the sea of smiles around you!

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Comments 13 comments

Moonmaiden profile image

Moonmaiden 8 years ago from Lucerne Valley, CA

Applauds! Excellent.


mqjeffrey profile image

mqjeffrey 8 years ago Author

Thanks, glad you enjoyed reading my article!


C.S.Alexis profile image

C.S.Alexis 7 years ago from NW Indiana

This is a fantastic article. C.S.


Ney 7 years ago

This article really helped me. I was searching for a good story for my mask that I am about to make and thanks to this article I have found a good resource to help me start the story.

Thankyou


William McCracken 6 years ago

Used to make Commedia d'el Arte masks from leather. Made a a plaster cast from a plaster bandage mold of the actor's face and built on that using modeling clay; made another mold of then a final cast with the features that I wanted (Harleguino, Brighella, Pantalone and Capitano).

Layed that cast on a piece of 2" thick wood that I'd cut to match it's back, soaked the leather, layed it snugly over the cast, pressed it down, stretched it until it was over the cast and the wood backing, then, drove roofing nails through the leather to keep it in one place while I worked on it.

Worked the leather with neets foot oil, pushing the it down into the details. It's not something that can be done overnight because as the leather dries it shrinks which can make it rip unless you keep it moisturized with neets foot or some other kind of oil. Have to have patience. Go fast and it destroys what you're working for.

When you have the detail you want, take out the nails, take the leather off the cast, and use shellac on the inside of the mask to make it rigid so that it keeps its shape and you can put on a fabric or leather band for the actor to tie around his head.

If you want outrageous eyebrows, moustache, etc just get horse tail hairs, thread them through a needle and put them in the appropriate spots. Use shellac on them to keep the way that you want.

That's it. Enjoy.


Moniku 6 years ago

i am currently taking a Design II class and our assignment is to make a mask out of papier-mâché... there are no molds available to me because other students are already using them, so i am left to create my own mask without a mold within 5 days. any advice on how to create one would be blessedly helpful. thanks


Christa 6 years ago

What sort of paper is used? Every article I read says they use absorbant paper...If you could give me the name of the paper I would greatly appreciate it


mqjeffrey profile image

mqjeffrey 6 years ago Author

Thanks for reading, Christa. Most people I know who make papier-mâché masks simply use newspaper because it is thin and can be easily layered.

However, you can also make "pulp" solutions out of dryer lint (http://familycrafts.about.com/od/papermache/a/lint... or egg cartons (http://familycrafts.about.com/od/papermache/a/eggc...

For more detailed and nuanced information about papier-mâché, I recommend this site:

http://www.papiermache.co.uk/

Here you can find detailed tutorials, articles, and galleries from artists all across the globe. I hope this helps.


Doesn't Matter 5 years ago

Hmm did you make the Papier Mache mask in a positive or a negative mold?


girl you don't know :) 5 years ago

hii um i am looking up venetian masks and i don't know who the inventor was?

could you please help me?


mqjeffrey profile image

mqjeffrey 5 years ago Author

Here's what I found. There was no single inventor, but rather a guild of artists that sprung up around the same time: "The mascherari, or mask-makers had their own statute dated 10 April 1436. They belonged to the fringe of painters and were helped in their task by sign-painters who drew faces onto plaster in a range of different shapes and paying extreme attention to detail."


Marina 4 years ago

I'm making masquerade earrings to go with a mask))) http://www.beautyartrush.com/site-scf/handmade-ear...


Nana Artisan profile image

Nana Artisan 4 weeks ago

I have always admired Venice, miraculous city. Spirit of medieval times still inhabits its squares. Your story is like a legend, a wonderful piece of narration!

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