28 June, 2006

34. Making a mask

This old backstreet mask-maker's window reveals some of the traditional techniques used to make a Carnevale mask.

The form of the mask is first modeled in clay, and a plaster cast is then taken from the model, making a reverse mold of the shape. Three of those plaster molds are on the shelf below the raw masks hanging around the window.

Into all the curves and crevices of this mold the maker presses a soft fibrous sheet of rag and paper pulp dipped in glue, trimming the overhanging edges to the shape of the mold. You can see that the mold on the left in this picture has a blue-gray mask base still inside it, waiting to be removed.

As this 'papier maché' dries, the glue sets to a hard but flexible finish with a smooth shiny surface, like porcelain. This surface is then buffed with an abrasive polish so that the white paint sealing coat will better adhere to it, and then the eyeholes are carefully cut into it.

Some of these masks are left with only the traditionally simple decorations on a white base, others are very elaborately decorated, incorporating all kinds of extra touches like fancy paint effects, feathers, gilding, glitter – some are even encrusted with 'jewels'.

Apart from the traditional cast of Carnevale masked characters, each interpreted by different makers in a variety of ways, a vast range of other characters have been introduced in recent years for the tourists, including – heaven help us – Disney and Pixar cartoon characters. Perhaps it's time Venice passed another Sumptuary Law to protect this unique traditional celebration from being further contaminated by American popular culture?

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