When carnival arrives to Venice, mask maker Davide Belloni and his friends will dress up as Plague Doctors. “It’s a very traditional costume in Venice, dating from the 1500’s,” Belloni says from his mask shop in the heart of Venice. A statue of such a Plague Doctor stands outside the window.
“The Plague Doctor’s outfit used to be functional. In the time of the plague, the doctors used to put herbs in the mask, so they wouldn’t have to breathe the infected air. The long nose and the stick would make sure there was always a distance between the doctor and his patients,“ Belloni explains. The long canvas gown was also for protection, although this whole outfit didn’t work the way the doctors thought it would. At the time, scientists didn’t know about microbes, so the whole scary outfit was meant to keep out the evil spirits that, according to the people then, caused the plague.
Davide is the son of the founder of Ca’Macana, Mario Belloni. The father was one of the people who helped to revive Venice’s carnival in the 1980’s. The now so famous event had not been celebrated for almost two hundred years, while the wearing of masks in high society had slowly been abandoned with the fall of the Venetian republic at the end of the 18th century.
So when Belloni, who was an architecture student at that time, decided to revive the mask making craft and sell them in the square, he had to do some research first. Nobody really knew anymore what materials to use and what techniques to adopt, and Belloni found his answers in obscure books buried in libraries. “The masks were made from papier mache. They used to be thrown away after a while and very few survived the centuries, “ Belloni told hiEurope.
What they do have in the workshop in one of the tiny alleys of Venice, are images of Venetian high society wearing masks. The work of the 18th century Venetian painter Pietro Longhi, for instance, shows much evidence of how and when masks were worn. “For the nobles, wearing a mask was something they did all year round. It gave them a kind of freedom, because they could go everywhere and not be recognized,” Belloni says. One of these old paintings, named Il ridotto, shows the state gambling hall, where it was forbidden to play without wearing a mask.
These daily masks were not the colorful painted artworks that cover the walls of the Ca’Macana shop. The men wore plain white Bauta, while the women had small black velvet Moretta, a mask they only took off when they were interested in a man.
Carnaval was another thing entirely. In the old days, the carnival would start on the 26th of December and end on Shrove Tuesday, more than two months later. Venice had the most extravagant carnival in the world and during the parties, the Venetians would wear masks that were more colorful, as they were often part of the costume. “So during these months, the people in Venice could party together without recognizing each other,” Belloni says. All this incognito partying got out of hand, and stricter rules were applied in the city, eventually leading to the decline of the custom.
Nowadays, the Ca’Macana shop is one of the few in Venice that makes masks the old way, with pressed paper, some plaster and clay and one’s hands. When there is no carnival, the mask makers also give courses to tourists, so they can learn to make their own Venetian mask in the workshop around the corner from the shop.
Belloni tries to stay ahead of the competition by inventing new models each year. “But there are so many people who sell masks in Venice, that it takes just a few months before the streets are flooded again with imitations of our models,” he says. Many masks sold in Venice are made of plastic, or are painted in Albania and other eastern European countries, but Ca’Macana has built up enough of a reputation to stay ahead. “During the carnival, we work every night until 10 o’clock. Many people come here, chose a mask and go straight on to the party.”