La Maschera


In Venice, the iconography of “the mask” has moved so far past the point of cliché that even to speak of masks in Venice as cliché, is a cliché in itself.  La maschera has become the ulitmate symbol of crass commercialism in a city that built a thousand-year empire on trade, but ultimately succumbed to the bacchanalian demise that characterizes so many great civilizations. Walk down any market street in Venice and you will pass shop after shop selling infinite variations of masks; some specializing in high-end, handcrafted masks-as-art selling for hundreds of dollars, some displaying thousands of cheap plastic masks ordered direct from Ali Baba Suppliers in Hong Kong and available for a couple of euros.   And any strada, campo, or piazza wide enough to accommodate a kiosk will be littered with street vendors hawking more of the same.   I have little doubt that some Venetians have nightmares of their city drowning –-not from the acqua alta, and not from the weight of millions of tourists, but from a sea of masks, growing ever higher, rising above every high-water line, filling her squares and alleyways with imitation non-biodegradable representations of their city’s storied history.


It may come as a surprise to the casual visitor that forty years ago there was not a single mask shop in Venice, nor even a single craftsperson who made masks. When Carnival was re-instated in Venice in the early 1980’s (having been banned in the nineteenth century soon after falling to Napoleon's army), no one even knew how the masks of old were constructed, or what they looked like. It took untold hours  of research, experimentation, imagination, and plain hard work for these now-ubiquitous symbols of Venice to be re-invented by an enthusiastic and dedicated group of students, artists, and performers, who pored through dusty books in old libraries looking for example, instruction, and inspiration.   In a country where craftsmanship still means something, and secrets of the trades are still handed down from one generation to the next, the art of making masks had no guilds, no mentors, no traditions…It was an open field, a cowboy-country of potential creativity and innovation.  Perhaps therein lies seed of the tragicomedy that is the history of the modern Venetian mask.



Some of the friends I’ve made in Venice have told me stories of those early Carnivals.  In the first decades of the revival, Carnival buzzed with civic pride.  The young Venetians in particular felt they were reclaiming a part of their heritage, and having a big old time in the process.  The early masks and costumes were not so elaborate as those on offer by today’s high-end ateliers, nor as tacky as the nylon and polyester outfits currently on hand in the downmarket shops, but they doubtless contained a lot more soul within their fibers than either of their contemporary forms.  Most participants made their own costumes, and everybody played a part.  The streets were alive with spontaneous celebrations, and troupes of performers from around Europe had begun to come to Venice to participate.


I sometimes wonder what those early Carnivals were like–the spontaneity, the creativity, the buzz in the air, the sense that all the world is indeed a stage, that the masquerade was really making a comeback, that the primordial spirit of Carnival had returned to its rightful home: the watery, labyrinthine wonderland that is Venice.


Now all that has changed.  Five years ago the City of Venice sold Carnival to a private marketing firm based in Milan.  The early pioneers were burnt out, and getting older.   The celebration had grown so big, so fast, that things had gotten out of hand.  The European jet-set had discovered the scene, elaborate balls were staged, and Venice began to promote Carnival heavily as a tourist destination during the previously lean winter months.   A coterie of French, German, and Russian enthusiasts had begun to make Carnevale their own, and arrived every year with trunkfuls of costumes, in which they frequented Caffe Florian and the round of masquerade balls that were springing up in all the finest palazzos.   The street party got more and more raucous and less and less Carnivalesque, as backpackers and college kids flooded into the city to drink and mingle and generally treat Venice like a huge open-air nightclub.  Few of them bothered with masks or costumes.


Today there is little local participation in Carnival other than from a commercial standpoint.  From the grandest masquerade balls to the drunken crowds of Euro-partiers in Rialto and Campo Santa Margherita, Carnival today is an entirely tourist-driven phenomenon.   The locals tolerate it, endure it, work it, like the residents of any tourist destination.   But they don’t go in for it much, other than for a bit of a laugh.  Most of them keep their heads low until it passes, and they can reclaim the city for a few sweet weeks in early spring before the tourist hordes and cruise-ship day-trippers clog their streets again.


It might be going too far to say that Carnival is killing Venice.  In truth, there are many things that are killing Venice, and anyway Venice has been dying for the past five hundred years.   Indeed, it is the allure and mystery of its special brand of decay that makes Venice so beguiling.



I originally intended this post to be a more philosophical meditation on the idea of the mask.   About the abandonment of the self, the re-structuring of image, the ways in which, rather than hide one’s persona, the mask can allow for deeper, darker aspects of one’s personality to have their day in the sun.   About the parallels between the Venetian mask and the reflections in the Venetian canals, which hide the murky depths and reflect back in shimmering shapes the colors and gothic structures of the city’s façades.   The potentials for metaphor, myth, and psychological meditation
are endless.   But I’ll save the philosophy for the book, or for another post.   For now, I guess I had to get this one out of my system.


Anyone who has come to know and love Venice and see her potential as a model for the pure city—a completely pedestrian metropolis, organically built, with two networks of navigation and endless opportunities for art, culture, and society to thrive–a city full of history, mystery, legend and lore; a city devoid of suburbs, sprawl, automobile traffic, and smog; a city built on a perfectly human scale; where people routinely run into their friends and acquaintances on the street and those who know her well can always lead you to a shortcut, a secret spot, a way to avoid the crowds–anyone who has some sense of what Venice could be can’t help being frustrated that the powers that be seem to keep pushing her in the opposite direction, slowly gutting her population to make room for more tourist traffic and flogging the world’s imagination with tired caricatures of her image.  Venice will always have her hold-outs, her die-hards, those willing to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous commercialism and stand their ground in the siege-war for her soul….you will find them meeting for coffee in Campo Santa Margherita, eating cichetti on the Fondamentas of Cannaregio, listening to gypsy music in Paradaiso Perdutto, making art in drafty studios down back alleys…but as the years wear on and their numbers are thinned by limited career opportunities, high rents, and general indifference from the Italian government, the forecast for some kind of cultural renaissance in Venice seems more and more unlikely.  Unless some committed entity with real vision doesn’t turn things around, Venice will soon become an empty shell, a theme park of European nostalgia, hardly distinguishable from Busch Gardens or Disney World.


It’s a sign of the times.  In a world of information-saturation and media gluttony, we don’t have time to savor Venice, or to allow her mystery and charm to truly seduce us and lead us on a labyrinthine journey full of history and intrigue.  We only have time to breeze through, take pictures as proof that we were there, buy a few plastic made-in-China masks as souvenirs, and cross her off our list of 1000 places to go before we die.



Maybe, one day, when the world gets off the wild, heady techno-ride it’s currently infatuated with–if Venice is still standing when that day comes–we may re-discover her, not as a tawdry made-for-photos waystation on the tourist trail, but as a living, breathing, model city, a blueprint for the city of the future, couched in all the trappings of cities of the past that make them so irresistible, especially to Americans used to fast-growing made-for-automobile cities that would take days to circumnavigate.   Maybe then, Venice will be able to shed the masks and reveal her true soul, and we, finally ready to wander without agendas and allow the music of churchbells, footsteps, and water lapping on stone to seep into our unconscious, will finally be able to dream the dream of Venice, and know that the dream is real.


Anyway, we can at least dream….


The final product of my work in Venice, I decided some time ago, is going to take the form of a fantasy, a myth, a set of archetypes, rather than a documentary of the contemporary Carnival.  What has always attracted me to Carnival is not the party, not the crowds, certainly not the tourism and commercialism, but the fact that there is something about this ancient celebration that continues to this day all around the world in spite of the ways that our techno-capitalist culture has diluted and bought the rights to it for marketing purposes.  What I’m interested in is the psychological and social phenomenon that continues to call on the Dionysian/Bacchanalian spirits buried in our collective unconscious to come out and play in the darkest depths of winter, as part of some long-forgotten fertility rite.  And it is by way of this notion that I hope to show the magic and mystery even behind the mass-produced, plastic masks such as the ones in these photographs.  As much as Carnival has been cheapened, as much as those of us who claim to know better or yearn for a truer, rawer, more “authentic” Carnival spirit turn up our noses at the crassness of all these imported knockoffs, the ghosts of the old gods are still staring through them, perhaps imploring us to listen, to wonder, to join in the masquerade, to dance with Dionysus and sing with Orpheus, and to allow the mysteries of the spirit and the flesh to commingle in our souls, no matter what kind of masks we might be wearing. 






chris bickfordComment