Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Man Behind the Mask

Sergio oh Sergio.  Where do I start?  On my first or second day in Italy, Christine was telling me of our plans to take a day trip to Venice so I could see the city and meet one of her good friends, Sergio.  I was, of course, excited to see Venice, but I had no idea what was in store for me in the city and in meeting this wonderful man.  I can tell you that both have left their imprints on my heart, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Venice was founded sometime around 450 A.D. when barbarians started invading Northern Italy.  Farmers and other refugees were literally pushed out of their homes and cities, and settled on the marshlands of what we now know as Venice.  They built their houses on the water, formed their own government, and generally just made the best of a bad situation.  The farmers were no longer able to support their families, and had to look for other ways to survive in their new home.  This came in the form of trade.  Because of the city's strategic position, Venice became the largest trade city in the world, and the most prosperous city in Europe.  In 1000 A.D. the first "Sensa" or 'wedding with the sea,' was held to mark the victory over the Adriatic Sea pirates, and officially marked the beginning of the Serenissima Republic government of Venice.

Under the Serenissima Republic, Carnivale was a grand spectacle and involved the entire city coming together to party and celebrate.  Carnivale comes from the Latin term "carnem levare," which means to go without meat, and is related to the medieval tradition to celebrate, feast, and enjoy entertainment as a way of saying "goodbye" to meat for Lent.  So basically, Venice was such a flourishing city at the time, the government said "let's just party for as long as possible."  The still needed some sort of reason or excuse to justify all the partying, so they claimed it as part of the Fat Tuesday preparations, and ended on Ash Wednesday.  Carnivale was like a 6 month long Mardi Gras, during which the entire city partied and everybody wore masks.  Nobility and commoners, rich and poor, all hid behind their masks and mingled about without being recognized.  Piazza San Marco and other campi became giant stages for theater shows, concerts, balls, games, and even fireworks.  Carnivale became so important to the Venetians that it was sacredly protected so that nothing could interfere with or hinder the fun and enjoyment.  For example, the leading doge (pronounced doe-jay; means "ruler" or "commander," and is specific to the Venetian language), Paolo Renier, died on February 13th 1789, during the Carnivale festivities.  His death wasn't announced until March 2nd, when all receptions and parties had ceased and Carnivale was officially over.

The partying and mask wearing was great fun, but people started taking advantage of their anonymity as a means of breaking the law.  Men would dress up as women and break into convents and rape nuns, prostitution was rampant, and the government had no way of identifying the criminals.  Carnivale had turned Venice into a really bad Las Vegas, but, for obvious reasons, it was still a big deal to the Venetians.  When Napoleon conquered Venice and merged it with Austria (1797), he abolished all forms of partying, mask wearing, and anything related to Carnivale.  Of course the Venetians kept partying, and records of parties in palaces are found up through 1861, but for the most part, traditional Carnivale was a thing of the past.  Was Napoleon really good for anything??

In 1979, associations in Venice joined forces and decided to revive the Venetian culture and recreate this lost tradition.  Today Carnivale is celebrated for the 2 weeks before Lent, and the city comes together again, as in the past, to celebrate, wear masks, and party.  Born and raised in Venice, Sergio Boldrin saw the re-birth of Carnivale, and decided to flex his creativity from painting canvases to mask making during this pivotal time in his city's life.  He is one of the very few original modern day Venetian mask makers, and is responsible for the masks being what they are today.

All the men of the Boldrin family were gondoliers, and Sergio was brought up to carry on the family tradition.  His father and grandfather were goldoliers, and the family tree just gets wider from there.  (Fun fact about gondolas/gondoliers: The trade of gondolier was strictly transmitted from father to son, and was just very recently opened, through competition, to all aspiring gondoliers.  The traditional way of making the 1,000 year old boats has still been kept a secret to this day.)  Sergio told us that when he was 14, his papa took him out on a gondola to teach him how to row.  He had always known that he didn't want to carry on the family trade, but was respectful of his father's wishes and gave it a try.  His first time out with his papa, he fell off of the boat and into the water, and his father reached in and pulled him out by his shirt with one hand, like pulling a cat out of water by its scruff.  Right then, soaking wet in the boat, he looked at his dad and said "Papa, no, please. I don't like this."  It's a good thing things didn't work out with the gondola, because the world would really be missing out if this great artist was pushing tourists around through the canals every day instead of sharing his love and passion for his city and its culture.

In 1984 Sergio purchased a small, closet sized "boutique" at the foot of the Rialto bridge to house and display his masks for sale.  His shop, called La Bottega dei Mascareri, is about 12 feet by 7 feet, and shares a wall with one of the oldest churches in Venice.  I took this picture on my first trip to Venice, and  the area is just so busy that there's no way to get a quality picture of the front of his store.

You can see some of the beautiful paper maché masks in the windows, but you are just completely in awe and overwhelmed when you walk in.  He has hundreds of masks hanging in every inch of space inside his shop, and he has his tiny work station (standing room only) where he works on painting the masks when he doesn't have customers or visitors.  On my first trip to Venice with Christine, Christer, and Jameson, I had the privilege of meeting Sergio, but he was busy and Jameson was tired so we didn't have much time to talk.

When we returned to Venice for the weekend trip with Kathy and Jessica, we had much more time to spend with Sergio, and he took the time out of his work day to talk with us.  He actually closed his shop, on a Saturday, in busy season, for over an hour to share a prosecco with us on our favorite trattoria, which happens to be conveniently located right behind the church that his shop is connected to.

Sergio is probably the most interesting person I've ever met, and he is so humble and grateful for the job that he has.  Celebrities like Tom Hanks, Pamela Anderson, John Travolta, and many more have all purchased masks from Sergio, but he would never once mention them without asking.  Two of his best friends are Joe Mantegna and Jackson Browne, because of the interest they've showed in his work and their humble personalities.  His masks and paintings have been used in movies (Eyes Wide Shut), window displays (La Perla), tributes, and magazines, and are in galleries all over the world. He works very hard, 7 days a week, standing on his feet in his shop, but when you ask him how he does it he just says "No, no, it's not a big deal.  I love my job and am grateful for what I have."

Christine had called and told Sergio we'd be coming for the weekend, just to make sure he would be working and we'd get the chance to see him.  When we arrived at his shop, he had already picked out and wrapped a mask for each of us to take home.
This was the mask Sergio gave me, which is now proudly hanging in my room (on my window because we can't put any holes in the walls).

After Sergio opened his business, he became so busy and overwhelmed that he needed help running the shop and making masks.  He taught his brother Massimo how make the paper maché masks with the molds Sergio creates, and together they opened a studio a few blocks from where their shop is located.  Massimo and his wife Rita work in the studio most of the time, and Sergio mainly stays in the shop and paints and speaks with the customers.  The studio is considerably bigger than the shop, probably about 6 times as big, and is just as covered in masks and artwork, minus the small workstation in the back.  I took a few pictures from the window one day when we were passing by.

In the first picture you can see the work station in the back with the unpainted masks, and the second picture has one of Sergio's pièce de résistance, the painting in the back.  Sergio's masks are his life, but his paintings are such an open and free form of expression, and they're a completely different experience than seeing or touching his masks.  If you can see the red and orange background, those are actually the buildings of Venice.  He says he paints them warped and crooked because Venice has changed, and it's not the same Venice he remembers as a boy.  The masks and Carnivale have been bittersweet, because they've brought him financial stability and they're an important part of Venice culture, but they have also brought millions of tourists, which has had an affect on not only the city itself, but its inhabitants.  Seeing Venice through Sergio's eyes in his paintings is a beautiful and emotional experience, and every single one of his pictures has a different story to tell.

During our extended stay in Venice, we were lucky enough to share prosecco with Sergio many more times, and he even came over to our apartment after work for dinner/antipasto and prosecco a few nights.  He is just such a genuine and interesting person that each time you say goodbye leaves you wanting to know and hear more about him.

I picked out 5 masks to take home as gifts, and one for myself.  And I found about 5 others that I'd LOVE to have but haven't yet purchased so as not to break the bank on my first month here.  This is the mask I picked out for myself, and I like it more and more each time I look at it.  It's called "Fritellino," because of the style and shape.  Sergio ended up gifting every single mask to me, and wouldn't take any payment.  Just another short story of his kindness.  While we were visiting, a lady from Australia came into his shop to see him.  She told him that her daughter had been visiting Venice 5 or so years ago with a group trip of sorts, and had wandered into his shop.  She found a mask that she wanted, but didn't have enough money when she went to buy it.  Sergio just gave her the mask for free, and sent her on her way.  The mom told Sergio that she was so touched by his kindness towards her daughter, and the mask is so beautiful that she had it put in a frame, and it is now in their family room where everyone can see it, and she tells everyone who sees it the story of Sergio.  She said she had to come back and tell Sergio how grateful she was for his kindness and for the beautiful gift he gave to her daughter.

Sergio said that when he heard about the tragedies of September 11th, he could feel the pain the Americans were experiencing, and he wanted to create a mask to resemble that.  He has a friend who had purchased masks from him in the past, and is an avid American flag collector.  He created a unique mask mold, resembling a white sheet of paper with a single face protruding through the center of the sheet.  The emotions of the face are anxiety, fear, and pain, exactly the feelings Sergio was sharing during the tragedy.  He then painted the white sheet as an American flag, and gave it to his friend as a gift.  His friend was so moved and touched by the gift, that he donated the mask to be used in a memorial tribute event at either the Smithsonian or the History Center (I don't remember where it was held).  They enclosed the mask in a display case, and had it as the center focus upon entering the building.  Sergio was unable to attend the event, but his friend sent pictures, which he has up on his website under "events."

Every year he is very active in planning and helping create the modern day Carnivale, and he always contributes masks to the enormous event.  Last year the theme for Carnivale was the black plague, so Sergio created over 100 rat masks, and over 60 doctors masks.  He had one of the rat masks hanging in his shop, and it was very enormous and impressive.  The doctors masks are the typical white mask with the long bird-like nose, and sometimes with round black glasses over the eyes.  The doctors wore these masks during the plague because they'd stuff herbs into the nose to act as a disinfectant to kill the germs of the people they were treating.  They had gondolas with the people wearing the rat masks arrive at the campo and parade around the city, and then they had the doctors arrive after them to chase the rats out of the city.  This year the theme is the Bacchus (pronounced bah-coo-s), the god of wine, so Sergio is creating all different Bacchus masks.  You can see some of his regular Bacchus masks on his website.  Maybe if we keep our fingers crossed, I'll be able to attend the Carnivale next year and witness the spectacle firsthand.  :)

On our last day in Venice, Sergio had closed the shop and was working with Massimo and several other mask makers of the city to put together a memorial for a fellow mask maker and friend who had recently passed away.  Sergio made a mold (either of her face or a woman's face, it was a little lost in translation) and made 8 identical masks, which he then passed out to the other mask makers in the city who were helping with the memorial.  Each artist then decorated the mask in their own way to bring to her memorial to be put on display.  Sergio had painted his with the same brush strokes and style as his "Modigliani-esque" paintings, starting with red on the outside, and circling in through the rainbow and ending with purple on the nose of the mask.  The paint was thick and had visible texture, and Christine ran her finger over the purple nose and Sergio said "That, right there. (pointed to the purple) That's her."  He felt her soul through his painting, and it was such a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to his friend.

Sergio left the preparations for the service and insisted on walking us to the vaporetto stop to say goodbye.  He had a million things on his mind, but took the time to say goodbye to each of us, and wish us a safe trip home.  As our vaporetto was pulling away from the dock, I waved goodbye to Sergio and watched the city that I love so much pass before me in the way only tourists see.  Buildings passing by much faster than normal Venetian speed, and from the view of the Grand Canal, where the only life you see is the passing boats and people snapping pictures.  My eyes welled up, and the streets and canals of Venice were tugging at my heart and making me long to be back in the heart of the city again.

"Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great." -Mark Twain

Today my favorite thing about Italy is: The feeling you get walking through the streets of Venice.  Everything is so rich in history and life, and it's such a surreal experience being a part of such an amazing city.

Footnote:  Please check out Sergio and Massimo's website www.mascarer.com for more information on their beautiful craft, and to see pictures of some of the masks.  Every mask is unique, and no two look alike, but you can see some of their creations, and they do re-use the molds.  If you would like me to get you a mask, we'll be back to Venice, so just let me know what kind.  Just do a google search of Sergio Boldrin for pictures of him at some of his various exhibitions and for more publications and information about him.


  1. I like the mask 'Piuma' MOM

  2. I very much enjoyed your well-written piece on the Boldrin brothers. I have visited their shops during my six trips to Venice, and truly enjoy the 20 masks I have bought from them that hang throughout my home. Their beautiful work has inspired me to try my hand at mask making, and during my trip to Venice this past April, Sergio invited me to work in the studio if I returned in November when business was slower. I could not resist the offer, returned last month, and worked two mornings in the studio with Rita and Massimo. Sergio also closed the Rilato shop early one evening and we shared a bottle of proseco at the same cafe. The whole experience was one I will always treasure. My life has been enriched, and feel most fortunate to consider Sergio a friend.

  3. Hi. My husband and I were fortunate enough to meet Sergio in April 2012 in Venice at his shop. His mask commemorating his despair at watching his beloved theater (Teatro La Fenice) being destroyed by fire on January 29, 1996 called La Fenice now proudly hangs in our living room. It is an absolute amazing work of art, and I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. Knowing the history and significance to him makes it all the more meaningful. We also purchased a mask similiar to the ones from Eyes Wide Shut. I really enjoyed reading about your experience in Venice. We will be heading back to Venice in September this year, but unfortunately only for one day (cruise), and definitely will return to his shop. I would love to know the name of your favourite trattoria there. I'm a little bit of a foodie and given we only have one day want to have a great meal while there. We ate at Birraria la Corte, and Ristorante Al Giardinetto the last time we were there. The food was really good at both, service at one (Birraria great) the other very rushed. Thanks for any info you can share.