Mask Making in Florence

After my experiments last summer making masks I decided I wanted to learn a little more about how the papier mache mask is made in Italy. I scoured the internet and bookshop for related articles and texts, and quickly came across The Masks of Prof Agostino Dessi.

The book itself is beautifully produced, filled with full-page photographs and for anyone interested in masks it’s well worth obtaining.  By that point I’d seen a lot of masks and Agostino’s stood out to me as some of the best around: unique and far more like pieces of art than mass produced partywear… So, buoyed up by the mad artistic enthusiasm that grabs me from time to time, I got in touch and asked him if it would be possible for me to visit him and learn how he does it.

And he said yes.

So, I booked my hotel and flights and set off on my own for Florence at the end of March.  I’d only been to Italy once before, had a tourist-level grasp of Italian from listening to the Pimsleur Italian course for a few months (which I heartily recommend: no other language course has stuck in my mind so well.  Check it out of your library for free), and was travelling alone.  It was a bit daunting.  Especially when I made the mistake of looking up reviews for Expedia just after booking.  It’s a bit like looking up your symptoms to self-diagnose: you’ll always find links to the worst possible scenario and people don’t generally go online to post “actually it was all fine”.  So, to break the trend: it was all fine.  Expedia was great, communicative and easy to use.  London City Airport was fast, easy to drive to and navigate internally as it’s so compact.  Air France were friendly and the flight was pain-free which was nice: my hearing was impaired and my ears hurt for several weeks after the flight home from Venice last year.  So, credit where it’s due, even if it’s not as exciting as “and then the engine blew up on the runway and we all had to be evacuated”… an incident involving the same airline and airport about a week earlier that I’m glad my parents told me about after the trip.

Agostino Dessi's mask shop in Florence
Agostino Dessi’s mask shop on Via Faenza, Florence

And Florence was beautiful.  The people endlessly helpful, and I got chatting to so many more people than I would have if I hadn’t travelled alone.  I stayed for a week, touring the city in the mornings and studying with Agostino in his beautiful mask shop every afternoon.  I had the best time.  THE BEST time.  I learned so much, saw so much, and can’t wait to go back.  It’s a gorgeous city filled with incredibly talented people, so many of whom are based in the streets around Agostino’s shop that they seem to be forming an artistic quarter, which can only be a good thing.

I had my own little corner of the shop to work in
Agostino’s shop.  It took me a week of evenings to produce my mask from scratch, so I can only imagine the sheer quantity of man-hours contained in this one image.

One of the many problems I’d had with the masks I’d tried to make before was getting them to fit a real face.  I’d been making a clay replica of my own face and then building the mask on top, but then found that the finished item was too wide, narrow, too close to the eyes, or didn’t have enough space for a nose.  Just being able to recreate a face doesn’t mean it’s the ideal shape for a mask.

Sculpting the face in clay, then embellishing with details
Sculpting the face in clay, then embellishing with details

My first day at the shop was almost entirely spent getting the proportions correct according to a set of rules that should eliminate that problem.  Fingers crossed I can remember it all from my notes now I’m home!

After casting the sculpt in plaster I started to apply the papier mache over a couple of evenings.
After casting the sculpt in plaster I started to apply the papier mache over a couple of evenings.
Painting the mask
Painting the mask

Then I painted the undercoat for a cracked and antiqued surface, before adding the details and finish.

The finished mask
The finished mask

I’m really happy with the final result, and can’t wait to try recreating the whole process at home!  Watch this space.

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