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Shopping for Venetian Carnevale Masks

Shakespeare never imagined writing a play called the Merchant of Paris or London. He wrote the Merchant of Venice because that’s where the shops were. In the 16th century the streets, markets, and docks around the Rialto were jammed with traders. Merchants came from all over Europe to Venice—the most active port in the Mediterranean—to trade with their Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese counterparts. Pigments, leather, textiles, spices, perfumes, precious wood, and foodstuffs were exchanged for gold, silver, and armaments. Local workshops transformed these materials into valuable objects that brought the city wealth and fame.

crowds of people shopping on the Rialto bridge in Venice
Many commercial shops line the Rialto Bridge. Photo © bluejayphoto/iStock.

Many trades have survived, making Venice shopping an adventure. The most celebrated of these use glass, lace, and papier-mâché. Although the number of craftspeople has declined, they can still be found plying their trades across the city. Historic workshops are common in Dorsoduro, where both and Calle Bastion and Calle della Chiesa are dotted with one-room galleries where artisans work in the back and display textiles, prints, and jewelry in the front. You can find glass and lace in showroom boutiques and souvenir shops around San Marco, but if you want to go to the source you’ll need to board a vaporetto and head out to the furnaces of Murano or the back streets of Burano where lacemaking refuses to die. Be sure to ask permission before taking pictures of artisans’ creations.

Venice has no fashion megastores, but many designer boutiques. Major brands cluster along the most trafficked areas, such as the streets north and west of Piazza San Marco or in the Strada Nuova in Cannaregio, which stretches from the train station all the way to the Rialto. Both sides of the Rialto Bridge are heavily commercialized, and the arcades and market stalls on the San Polo side are a good place to search for T-shirts, jewelry, and masks. Rio Terra Lista di Spagna, the gateway to Cannaregio, is lined with shops, but it’s very touristy and best avoided.

Venetian shops are generally open from 9am to 1pm and 3pm to 7pm, though many sacrifice the traditional lunch break, especially during summer. Most shops close on Sundays and many remain closed on Monday mornings.

a variety of colorful Italian masks on display
Head to the Castello neighborhood to search for traditional masks. Photo © JqnOC/iStock.

Shopping for Masks

Throughout the 18th century, Venetians used masks to enjoy stigma-free decadence. Nobles wore masks to visit brothels, youth to escape from parents, the poor to frequent the rich, the rich to frequent the poor, aristocratic ladies to enter dark alleys, clergy to temporarily break vows, and so on. Famous Venetian Giacomo Casanova wore a mask as he went to meet his lovers at the Cantina Do Mori, where he was a regular.

Masks are still used today and are one of the most common sights at street-side stalls and gift shops around the city, where cheap versions can be had for €5-10. These have little to do with the papier-mâché versions carefully made in a dozen or so ateliers around the city. These versions sell for €30 to €300 and are based on classic molds that have been used for centuries. The most common is the white Bauta mask that allows the wearer to eat and drink while remaining hidden from view. It is worn by both men and women and often paired with a black tabarro cape. Another popular mask is the Medico della Peste, recognizable by the long nose that resembles a bird’s beak. It was invented by a doctor in the 17th century who didn’t want to be recognized by his patients dying from the plague and was later adopted by Carnevale goers. The Colombina is a half-mask that covers eyes and cheeks. It continues to be favored by Venetian ladies and often comes painted in silver or gold and adorned with feathers and beads.

These and many other historical masks and newer creations are available at workshops around the city where you can learn more about the origins of your disguise. Castello is a good neighborhood to start shopping for masks, and the four shops below are definitely worth a look.

The historically accurate costumes, papier-mâché masks, tuxedos, wigs, capes, hats, and shoes at Atelier Flavia (Santa Marina, Corte Spechiera 6010, tel. 041/528-7429, appointment only) could transform anyone. It’s the ideal place to come before Carnevale for an Eyes Wide Shut (or any other) look. Costumes can be rented or purchased.

The walls of Ca’ del Sol (Castello, Fondamenta dell’Osmarin, tel. 041/528-5549, daily 10am-8pm) are covered in masks. All the classics are here, including bauta, columbine, harlequin, plague, and scores of one-off creations that are handmade using papier-mâché, leather, ceramic, and iron. The shop has been around since 1986 and helped revitalize the art of maskmaking in the city. It’s run by a collective of artisans who patiently answer questions and aren’t uptight about letting customers try on as many masks as they like. They organize maskmaking courses and rent elaborate costumes during Carnevale.

It takes a while to distinguish between the different mask types, but the quality of the structure and painted detailing is immediately evident at Papier Maché (Castello, Calle Lunga 5174, tel. 041/522-9995, Mon.-Sat. 9am-9pm). Four decades of maskmaking experience is on display in the windows of this boutique, which has a large selection of ornate masks with designs you won’t see anywhere else. Prices are a little high, but this is the real deal—and perhaps the finest way to keep your identity hidden.

Ca’ Mancana (Calle de le Botteghe 3172, tel. 041/277-6142, daily 10am-7:30pm) is one of the finest and uses traditional papier-mâché techniques to create both classic Carnevale and fantasy characters. Anyone can hide their identity for as little as €30. This is where Stanley Kubrick came when he wanted masks for Eyes Wide Shut. If you want to learn how masks are made or are traveling with kids, ask about the maskmaking workshops that last a couple of hours and will keep young and old entertained.

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Vendors and craftsman selling glass, lace, and papier-mâché can still be found plying their trades across Venice. Check out these shop recommendations and tips when shopping for authentic Venetian Carnevale maskse.