A merchant of Venice

The thing I hate about places like Venice is all the tourists (hardy har har har!)

It’s full-on shoulder season in Italy (April) and we’re wondering where all these people are coming from. From Pisa to Florence to Venice, Italy is full of tourists and we can’t imagine what this place looks like in summer!

Gondoliers steer their boats under the Bridge of Sighs

Gondoliers steer their boats under the Bridge of Sighs

We spent the first of our two full days in Venice wandering sidewalks trying to get away from the hoards. We walked through all the typical places like St. Mark’s Square and over the Rialto Bridge (which was under restoration and had scaffolding nicely decorated with Diesel Clothing ads).¬† We saw gondoliers jockeying for position under the Bridge of Sighs, and were scolded by a police officer for sitting down to eat muffins (apparently you can only stand and eat in public spaces).

We were beginning to feel a little claustrophobic, so we took a left turn at the Naval Museum looking to find the city’s back 40. Suddenly we were on less frantic streets in a residential area full of houses with laundry hanging from windows.

The peaceful backstreets of Venice

The peaceful backstreets of Venice

We came across a British school group with an enthusiastic teacher explaining the history of Venice to students who were actually listening. We stood much longer staring at the view from the bridge as we listened to his lecture. He managed to link much of what we have seen on this trip from the start of the Silk Road in China to trade with India and the rise of the city-state in Europe.

When we decided we were getting a little obvious, we moved on down a narrow street in search of more unique experiences. This was where we met Giancarlo, an artist who crafts Venetian masks using the centuries-old tradition of paper mache.

Giancarlo invited us into his workshop and first made sure we understood that “hand-decorated” or “hand-painted” in Venice does not mean the mask was fabricated in the city. In fact, those¬† claims are jargon for “mass produced in China.” He showed us how to spot a fake and then explained the centuries-old process he follows that takes about three days.

An authentic Venetian mask is very light (another indication of whether you have an industrial-made mask) and usually has a few imperfections. We tried on several of his masks, which were all pure works of art.

Giancarlo poses with the girls

Giancarlo poses with the girls

Giancarlo said that Venetian masks have been around since about the 13th century when they were commonly worn by residents of the city from servants to wealthy merchants. The masks allowed people to interact without regard to social status, and gave people the freedom they experienced when out on the high seas.

Today people associate masks with the Carnival of Venice. One of the most popular masks is of the plague doctor, whose bizarre origins are found in the plague that hit Venice in the 1600s. More than 50,000 people died, and doctors had resorted to wearing masks that looked like long beaks filled with herbs to prevent themselves from getting infected. Possibly the first homeopathic remedy to fail big time.

We ended up buying one of Giancarlo’s works of art, which Claire is wearing in the cover photo.

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