Behind the mask

A peak inside the world of Ca’ Macana, mask atelier in Venice. Managing Director, Davide Belloni reveals the secrets and challenges of mask-making and why masks are unique to Venice. 

What happens when you wear a mask so that no one will recognise you? Do you suddenly feel brave? Confident? Fearless? Do you pretend to be someone else? Or do you explore a side of yourself that you have never seen before?

Masks in Ca’ Macana

Masquerades are the perfect outlet for people to recreate themselves and do anything they want, are of the stigma or judgment society often holds against anything unusual. Today, masquerade balls are commonly held to give people this chance to play pretend for a night.

However, the world of Venetian masks is far more complex than feathers, fancy hats, and extravagant costumes. Masks are culturally and historically linked to Venice, and celebrated annually at the Venetian Carnival.

Masks in Ca’Macana

In the last 17th century, Carnival ran from October through Shrove Tuesday, lasting about five months and was a means for the upper class to keep the lower classes appeased. Members of all social ranks would change names, ignore social status, and spend the nights gambling, cross-dressing, meeting lovers, and essentially letting go of all morals. The partying soon got out of hand, and stricter rules eventually lead to the decline and end of the custom before its revival again some 200 years later.

Nowadays, the Venetian Carnival is celebrated annually over two weeks in February and is world famous for its elaborate masks. Shop windows are filled with intricately designed handmade masks with sparkling jewels, bright colours and feathers, and often, odd shapes and patterns. Tourists flock to the city from all over the world to mask their identity as the ancient Venetians did hundreds of years ago, all in the name of a good party and a costume.

Stroll down any narrow street, winding canal or over one of countless bridges in Venice year-round and you will find yourself immersed in a world of masked mystery. Situated in the Dorsoduro district in Venice, one might stumble across Ca’ Macana, a mask atelier. The storefront is guarded by a masked figure, adorned in a Bauta mask and cape, the costume of a traditional Venetian citizen.

The Bauta mask- costume of a traditional Venetian citizen

Inside the store, you will find faces of all shapes, colours, and sizes staring back at you, waiting for someone to bring them to life. It is undeniably eerie and yet, the idea of pretend is suddenly enticing. The masks are tempting you with the unknown, if you dare to taste it.

Ca’ Macana is one of the oldest mask-making ateliers in Venice, which crafts and sells masks using the traditional techniques. Davide Belloni, Managing Director and son of the founder of Ca’ Macana explains that, “We make 100 per cent of the job by hands. It takes a lot of time and can actually be quite fatiguing, even boring, but it is also the most authentic.”

Davide’s father Mario Belloni, founded Ca’ Macana in 1986, the same year Davide was born and during the revival of the Venetian Carnival. Thus Davide grew up inside the walls of the Ca’ Macana workshop, learning the techniques after school, and even working there part-time while he completed his education.

After graduating school, Davide had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead he travelled to Bologna and other cities in Europe for work before making his way back to Venice 10 years later to expand his father’s business, including the opening of a second workshop, which is in its final stages right now.

“After 10 years studying and working elsewhere, I felt it was time to me to come back to my hometown and take part in what my family was doing. Working abroad and in Italy as an employee, I understood how beautiful it is to have an independent job and be in the position of creating something,” says Davide.

Currently, Davide is experimenting with new materials and shapes, markets and product lines to create new and original masks. This includes the steam punk style and use of feathers, which Davide says are well-sold products.

Steam punk style masks

Ca’ Macana distinguishes itself from other stores in Venice because the masks are created in the workshop from beginning to end, using local products. “We can do our job from beginning to end because we have the knowledge,” explains Davide. “It’s not just decorating, but the combination of moulding, sculpting, and decorating.”

Inside the workshop, six artisans work tirelessly behind the scenes to create the many faces of Ca’ Macana. The workshop smells of wet paint, sounds like creativity and is filled with masks at different stages of the mask-making process. Some are just the paper cache mould, others have a coat of paint awaiting decoration, and another batch is being decorated, almost ready to be worn.

Behind one desk sits Titziana, she is smothered in smears of wet and dry paint on her jeans, gluing the final touches to a set of masks. Titian has worked in Ca’ Macana for just over two years learning the skills on the job. She says she “learnt one technique until that is mastered and then you learn more techniques.”

Titziana decorating masks

Making masks is a lengthy process that involves paper cache for the mould, painting undercoats and final coats, and of course decoration. Depending on the size and layers required, masks can take up to days to make when extensive layers of paint and varnish are involved. Small face masks are assembled in batches to save on time and decoration while the larger and more elaborate masks are one-offs.

The mask-making process can be quite tedious and Davide acknowledges that finding people like Titziana who are willing to become a mask-maker is rather difficult. “It is hard to find apprentices. It is very intriguing at the beginning, we receive hundreds of CVs and hundreds of people come to trials. Then after 3-6 months they decide to leave because maybe they don’t take this seriously as a job. They want to be artists, they don’t want to be artisans.

Despite this challenge, the mask-making business is thriving in Venice, with nearly 50 million tourists visiting the city each year and around three million people attending the Venetian Carnival. During Carnival, Davide says, “people will buy a mask and don’t want it wrapped because they will wear it straight to the party.”

Famous Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise and Leonardo di Caprio have shopped at Ca’ Macana, their signatures now hang in the shop windows. Films like Fifty Shades Darker, Eyes Wide Shut and Inferno featured masks from Ca’ Macana, which shows how respected the quality of masks the Belloni family has been creating all these years.

Traditional ateliers specialising in hand-made masks like Ca’ Macana are also threatened by mass industrialisation and importation from other counties, selling imitations of high quality masks at lower prices. “There wouldn’t be so many gift shops with these crappy masks in China or Albania, made of plastic, if the business was not good; and these businesses not only survive but prosper,” Davide says bitterly.

Inside Ca’ Macana atelier

Davide does however remain confident that the future of Ca’ Macana will be a brilliant one because everything Ca’ Macana does is local- locally sourced and locally made. Davide prides himself on being able to show customers where his store’s masks are made. “If someone asks me are these masks made in Venice? I cannot only say yes they are, but also show them the workshop next door.”

Davide poses the questions, “Does it make sense to produce something in China, 11, 000 kilometres away from this city where the tradition does not exist? Does it make sense to move shipping containers so they [masks] will be cheaper? They might be handmade but it is completely industrialised and made by people who have no connection with what they are doing. There is no artistic meaning.”

Davide and the rest of Ca’ Macana are striving to keep the tradition alive in Venice by investing in the ancient methods and producing high quality masks that are more than an accessory but a work of art. When you find yourself wandering the streets of Venice or attending Carnival next February, or merely wanting to mask yourself, invest in a mask that Venetians themselves have invested in. You might just find yourself.