Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Destination Life: A Venetian Mask

Venice -- one of those destinations which one hears about on life lists and touted as an ultimate in romance with its gondolas, picturesque canals and romantic past.
However, Venice is dying. Almost everyone will tell you that. It has been in its death throes since Lord Bryon’s time but now the peril is worse than ever as its population keeps leaving. Last year, the population fell very close to what is needed to sustain an infrastructure.

Basically Venice does not have a mixed economy and there is little job opportunity. Jobs are inherited rather than created. Tourism represents a paradox – absolutely vital to keep the city alive, and yet contributing to its decline. Venice needs its tourists and people should see Venice. People who travel to Venice should also support Venice and its industries.

It was with this attitude that I travelled to Venice — determined to buy some souvenirs that were made in Venice, rather than the cheap tat sold in St Mark’s Plaza. We stayed in Venice and we ate in Venice.

One of the big tourist draws is the Venetian Carnival. In the mid 1970s, the City authorities decided to revive carnival in order to stimulate tourism during the slow winter months. Although the Venetian carnival had been popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, it no longer existed on any scale in the 1970s. In order to have a carnival, you had to have masks and the Venetian tradition of mask making was reborn. Today in Venice, there are probably more mask stores than stores that sell milk, but most masks are made elsewhere. In order to get the sort of mask required, I wanted a proper Venetian mask maker. They are harder to find than one might imagine as cheap mass produced masks are everywhere.
Looking for a mask maker gave me a wonderful excuse to go down little alleyways, look at costume shops and generally indulge in looking at masks as I find them fascinating and have done so ever since I first read a historical romance about Venice where the heroine was a daughter of a mask maker.

At last we found the mask maker I wanted in a little shop on the St Paulo side of the Rialto bridge—between the bridge and the Rialto market. Unfinished masks lined up waiting for painting on a wooden bench, finished ones hung from the ceiling and the walls in a wide variety of shapes, colours and styles. The shop smelled of paint and paper mache plaster dust. Better still the man was actually working on a mask. He put it to one side to explain how each of the masks were made. As we spoke, he pointed to the Eyes Wide Shut movie poster and told us that he had made the masks. Just outside his shop were photos of various celebrities like Tom Hanks and Nicole Kidman visiting his shop.

We purchased a proper Plague Doctor mask for my husband and for my daughter a Harlequin mask as she is into Commedia dell Arte. The Harlequin mask currently lives on my mantelpiece as there are of course other connections...

The mask maker wrapped the masks up with great care as they are works of art rather than just plastic masks. We carried them as hand luggage.

Other great handicrafts to search for in Venice included glass, lace, leather bound books and paper. You have to search hard to find the craft shops but the workmanship is exquisite.

And although I loved going to Florian and its counterpart across St Mark’s Square with their atmospheric painted walls and bittersweet cups of chocolate, I also enjoyed visiting little coffee and cake shops where they did not speak any English and you point at the variety of cake you want.

We also tried a wide variety of restaurants. Venice is mostly about fish, but on the last night we tried Venice’s only all meat restaurant D’Arturo. The menu has not changed since the 1970s and it is still in its original panelled decor. They do not take credit cards and reservations are a must. The waiter has been there forever as has the chef and the owner. The food is excellent. While we were there, a man and his young daughter came in to have their evening meal. This was apparently a weekly treat for the daughter. She demanded to see the holiday snaps, and then the waiter showed them to us. Every year, movie mogul Joel Silver flies the restaurant staff out to Hollywood so they can cook for his friends as D’Arturo is his favourite restaurant in the world. So they take photos and it was great fun to see Nicole Kidman, George Clooney, Leonardo diCaprio and others relaxing. All in all that restaurant was far more fun than Harry’s Bar. As the waiter said – it was a place where both locals and tourists went as strangers and returned as friends.

And Venice is one place where responsible tourism can really make a difference. Yes it may be in peril, but there are things a tourist can do to help... May Venice live forever!

Michelle Styles's latest North American release is Sold & Seduced and is available through eharlequin now.


  1. It sounds fascinating, Michelle. I've been to Venice once, for just a few hours, but I'd love to spend some days there and really soak up the atmosphere.

  2. Great post, Michelle! (And I'm going to be there eight weeks today - cannot WAIT!)

  3. What a terrific post Michelle, I have to admit to being someone who had never had any desire to go to Venice precisely because I always perceived it as a bit of a tourist trap... And places like that always depress the heck out of me... And there's also the small matter of Don't Look Now that sort of soured me on the prospect of walking down dark alleys there at night..

    But your post has made me totally reconsider. And realise that I was being a bit of a dope. Because no matter where you go, if you look you can always find places off the beaten track, those hidden gems that make a place really worth visiting.

  4. Heidi --
    Venice is most definitely not a tourist trap.
    It is expensive as everything does need to be shipped in.
    It is actually a very safe city as the residents do know each other and it is not easy to get away when your transport is either by foot or by boat. As with any city you do have to careful, but it was easy to walk around. And every church boasts of some great work of art. The vast majoirty of the tourists just stay in St Marks and so it is easy to get away from the crowds.
    There is a ticket you can buy to get into different churches. And the water bus sells unlimited travel tickets.... which are a great bargain.
    But you do have to see Venice. It is an experience.

  5. Been to Venice. Want to go back and spend more time. Maybe I'll add it to my list -- along with Istanbul!