There are two main types of shop in Venice. One sells glass, the other masks. The latter comprise both straight copies of traditional forms and less straightforward souvenirs of the elaborate masks worn at Carnival. The traditional masks were in use at least as early as the 15th Century and some of them were originally part of the costume of commedia dell’arte characters.
It is the souvenirs that come to monopolise one’s attention. Where the traditional mask copies retain a degree of medieval mystery and grotesqueness, the souvenirs are a dramatic, not to say melodramatic, departure from anything that was ever worn at Carnival. Some are palm-sized, cast in solid plaster and made to be hung on the wall; others are in light plastic, papier maché or wood and can be fixed to the head.
Encrusted with glitter, costume jewels, lurid metallic paints, sequins and satins, the masks leer emptily from one shop in three, ancient faces obscured by a creeping, twinkling, radioactive mould. I have no doubt that in February, at Carnival time, they fly from the shelves to the streets where they may mingle with their older, more ‘authentic’ cousins. In this context the masks are masking not the tourist revellers but the function of Carnival itself. There was rather more to Carnival than just ‘being there’. It’s possible that those indigenous Venetians who wish to celebrate Carnival with grave abandon may welcome the opportunity to identify instantly the rubbernecking visitors and behave accordingly. The glitter masks then immediately lose their function as disguise and become badges that identify the wearer unequivocally.
Oddly, the manic tourism and the commodities produced to feed it serve to heighten the ever so slightly tedious (because commodified) ‘mystery of Venice’. The ubiquitous masks drive home the fact that you’re not getting the Venice behind Venice – you’re getting a hystericised Venice in front of Venice behind which may reside the true Venice. So elusive is this final quantity that it may be wiser to forego one’s first visit to the city – it may be only on the second visit that one is sufficiently deterred by the demented white noise of glittermasked Venice to put some work into getting off the beaten track, getting lost and, maybe, finding the mystery thing that everyone bangs on about.
It would be entertaining to think that somehow the Venetians endorse the dementedness because it diverts the tourists and prevents them from contaminating the mystery. It’s more likely that they need a quick euro in a sinking city that has only its beauty to offer. The agitated intensity of the glitter masks and the stylistic gap between them and their medieval forebears suggests that both the natives and the visitors are experiencing an impatience with the past. By plumping for the gaudy the visitors have voted against the past as a place where people were different and settled for one where they’re dancers on an international TV light entertainment. The advantage of such a past is that it doesn’t just sort of sit there getting more and more out of date, it is constantly unfolding, with the natives’ support, into a relevant future.
‘The official resident population of the historic city of Venice shows a… marked fall, from a peak of 174,808 in 1951 to 60,208 in 2008. ‘ ‘…a research study center established by the City and Province of Venice (2008) concluded that the number of people present in Venice on an average day is 143,450 including the tourists. This is over 50% more than the total resident population of the “lagoon city” and over 100% more than the number of residents in the historic city, where the bulk of this transit population goes.’ Venipedia (Stats added to this post 2019)