An introduction to Venetian masks
Masks are synonymous with Venice. From the ancient (and super creepy) masks worn by doctors when the city was riddled with plague, to the wonderfully decorated and opulent masks of the Carnevale heyday in the Eighteenth-century. If you’re looking to buy a mask in Venice there approximately one million options to choose from, with shops of varying quality competing for your money. True Venetian masks are handmade, almost always using papier-mâché. I’ve also seen them take form in glass, leather, wood, and porcelain, but these are a bit more rare and usually made as a decorative piece for the home/office rather than something to wear to a ball. Once the masks are made by an experienced mask maker (known as a mascareri), they are beautifully decorated and hand finished. A true Venetian mask is a unique work of art, it will never have a twin.
The bad news? There are hundreds of tourist-tat stalls and shops around popular areas in Venice, and they have absolutely bastardised this craft… peddling cheap plastic masks from China to tourists who might think they’re getting something authentic.
The good news? I’m here to help. If you want to pick up a souvenir that’ll make your friends ache with jealousy (and contribute to the survival of true craftsmanship) check out my recommendations below.
Where to buy authentic Venetian masks
Schegge – Castello 6185 – +39 041 5225789
I can’t rave enough about Schegge, which is why I’ve put it at the top of my list. Schegge is a beautiful little family-run workshop, just off the beaten path in Castello. The shop was opened many years ago by the owner Victor and his late wife, Annalisa. Victor still painstakingly produces the same beautiful masks, and his lovely daughter Angela has stepped into her mother’s role of hand-painting them with mesmerisingly intricate designs. If you want a truly unique mask, this is the spot. Angela and Victor use historic paint recipes (such as ‘Venetian red’) and sumptuous Venetian fabrics to decorate their handcrafted masterpieces, so no two masks are ever alike.
The company in this little shop is as wonderful as the wares. Victor’s personality is positively contagious. I was chatting with him for ages while I browsed around the shop, and he had me laughing so hard I’m pretty sure I snorted a few times. When I asked if I could take a few photos (some shops vehemently prohibit this) he laughed and said “of course, anyone who does not let you take photos is either stupid or has something to hide!”. Love you, Victor.
I was drooling over the luxurious full-face masks, but had approximately zero room in my suitcase so browsed around the smaller (and equally exquisite) masks. I fell in love with this little temptress, which Angela and Victor personalised for me, signed, and strung with the ribbons of my choice. It’s now the centrepiece of my growing collection.
If you specific requirements, Victor will happily create your dream mask. Any shape, any colours, any decorations (and his prices are extremely reasonable!). This is a total gem of a shop run by true artists and no matter how big or small your purchase is, you’ll walk out with something that’s guaranteed to impress.
You can contact Victor and Angela by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or ring up the shop at (+39) 041 5225789 to discuss your requirements. Give Victor a big hug for me when you pop in.
La Bauta – Campo S. Maria Formosa 5851, Castello – 041 5280725
I found this shop by chance during one of my many episodes of being lost along Venice’s alleyways. They have a wonderful selection of both traditional and more modern handmade masks. This black and gold number caught my eye, and I’ve got the perfect gown to wear it with. I’m just waiting to be invited to a masked ball now.
Alberto Sarria Masks – Ruga Rialto 777, San Polo – +39 014 520 7278
Alberto’s shop is just a hop, skip, and jump from the Rialto Bridge and walking into it is like stepping into a fairytale dream. There are gorgeous masks literally everywhere, so you’ll be hard pressed to choose just one. I’m hopelessly in love with this beautiful pink mask he created. It reminds me of the decadence of the 1700’s with its pastel colours, gilding, and little beauty mark. Alberto was in the shop doing some hand-painting while I browsed, and he’s always happy to discuss the different types of masks and their history with you.
Ca’ Macana – Calle delle Botteghe 3172, Dorsoduro
Ca’ Macana is an extremely well known shop and, although their premises can feel a bit crowded or touristy sometimes, they are still the producers of some of the most opulent Venetian masks you can find. It’s worth noting that they also have a workshop on-site where you can paint your own mask. I’m sure this would go down well with kids… or if you happen to be a talented painter… but I prefer to leave the mask-decorating skills to the professionals because I’m perfectly shit at it. If you want a mask with serious ‘wow factor’, have a browse here. I got a bit attached to this velvet number that was topped with a huge cascade of ostrich plumes. Oh baby.