There’s just something about Venice that makes me want to slip into a 16th century gown, don a fabulous mask and throw a masquerade ball when I get back to California. And while I don’t think that our 2-bedroom apartment is the appropriate venue for an elegant masked-soiree, I can definitely tell you where to find the perfect headgear for one if you happen to be heading to the enchanting city of Venice.
My husband, Josh and I spent 5 nights at Residenza degli Angeli in Venice,
Alberto Sarria Masks is a petite mascherria that’s just around the corner from the 400-year-old Ponte Rialto and across from my favorite gelateria in the San Polo neighborhood, Gelateria Artigianale. Josh and I were having lunch next door at Osteria Antica Dolo, a gluten-free restaurant, when this magical-looking store caught my eye.
Alberto Sarria Masks is a feast for the eyes and I was amazed that every mask sold is created right here.
The window display at Alberto Sarria Masks is spectacular and filled with colorful marionettes, quirky hand-painted masks and a handwritten sign with their hours.
The shop is bursting with personality from the handmade sign to the delightful sisters who run it.
Josh and I met the Tonya and Sofia, daughters of founder Alberto Sarria. The sisters now run the second-generation shop and represent it in the local mask-making guild, a group they recently helped create to keep the trade alive for future generations.
The sisters learned the art from their father, Alberto when they were little girls.
Tonya and Sofia even participated in the 2018 Regatta Storica, an annual water parade where mask makers create amazing floats. Think Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, but on water. They proudly showed us photos of their entry into the parade, which was a 15th century gondola adorned by several giant papier-mâché masks of a gilded sun. (The event happened the day we arrived in town, which explained why the commuter ferry was shut down the afternoon we arrived. Knowing this awesome festival was happening helps soften the bitter memory of schlepping my roller bag across a dozen bridges to our bed and breakfast. #veryveryfirstworldproblems)
PHOTO OF REGATA
Tonya manages all business operations, while Sofia designs, molds and paints every single mask they sell. The store is covered from floor to ceiling in a kaleidoscope of colors, ranging from masks of amply-busted women to goofy clowns to horned demons. Some of the masks are even shaped into frames around one-of-a-kind mirrors. Since the entire process happens in Sofia’s open studio in the back of the store, we could actually watch her practice her craft.
There was just something about this piece that I just couldn't walk away from!
We talked with Sonia and Tonya for about an hour and learned so much more about what it's really like to grow up, live and work in this amazing city. It was also really interesting to hear Sofia’s perspective on the historical origin of mask making. It’s believed that Venetian masks came into popularity during Carnevale di Venezia, which has been celebrated since the 1100s. During the festival, citizens were allowed to abandon societal rules of dress for several months before Easter, regardless of their class or professional hierarchy. The masks allowed Venetians to socialize with one another in relative anonymity, which inspired this beloved annual tradition.
Meow. Of course, cat masks are bestsellers.
Local artisans like Sofia take great pride in sharing their work with visitors. She still uses old-world papier-mâché techniques to build these wearable masterpieces. The whole process takes at least three days per mask. It begins with shaping the mask in a mold. Most of her ceramic mask molds were handmade by their father, Alberto.
Their father, Alberto handmade the little lamb mold you see here.
After the piece sets inside of the mold, the mask form is wrapped in strips of wet paper strips until it hardens. Once the piece is completely dry, Sofia brings it to life with a combination of high-quality paint and materials like bells, feathers, stones and gold leaf flakes. Prices in their shop are €10 to €200 depending on the materials and complexity of the mask design.
Masks that are ready for paint.
But their old-world craft is threatened by a new form of competition. Sofia shared that most of the souvenir shops in Venice sell plastic or faux papier-mâché masks that come from overseas. These imitations are sold at significantly lower the prices than the authentic Venetian masks made by local artisans. Learning all this made me glad to be able to support a local, family owned, women-led small business like theirs.
I am still fascinated by the unusual plague doctor masks you see on the right with the horned beak! Venetian physicians wore them during the Bubonic Plague. The long, curved beaks were stuffed with herbs and bits of cloth in an effort to protect themselves from exposure to the plague.
We ended up purchasing a large mask for about €120. It’s an almost supernatural depiction of a gust of wind making its way between golden clouds. Anyway, after spending five nights in Venice, our trip continued—with rather large mask in tow—to Trieste, Predjama (Slovenia), Florence and Rome...which means that the mask traveled 563 miles across Italy in taxis, trains and trams before boarding our Alitalia flight home.
Our ultra-delicate mask traveled on taxis and trains across northern Italy and Slovenia.
In total, our Alberto Sarria mask traveled an astounding 6,717 miles back to Santa Monica, all without a scratch thanks to Tonya’s skillful packing.
Quite a journey from our apartment in Santa Monica to Alberto Sarria Masks!
And I couldn’t be happier with the mask, which is now worn by our bedroom wall. A huge smile passes my lips every time I see it and think about Venice, and about Sonia and Tonya and their magical little mascherria.
It was such a special experience to meet the women of Alberto Sarria Masks. Grazzi mille, amici!
Adventure Unabashedly Recommends
Address: Ruga Rialto – San Polo 777, Venezia
Hours: 10 AM – 7 PM
Phone: + 39 041 5207278
Price: €10 – €200 (Note: potentially more for customized pieces)
- They'll ship your mask or marionette anywhere in the world!
- Ask Sofia to sign and date your mask to commemorate the special occasion
Address: 704 Dorsoduro, 30123, Venezia Hours: 10 AM – 6 PM