Carlo Setti and The Art of Mask Making - Venice
Many are the traditional crafts of Venice, and one of the best known is mask making. Masks weren't produced only for Carnival, in the past they were actually used by theatre actors, in Italy often in relation to the famous Commedia dell' Arte. This is a craft with an intriguing history, and today I want to introduce you to Carlo Setti, one of the best mask-makers in the city of Venice.
Carlo has had his shop for more than 40 years, yet he never ceases to seek new inspiration and learn more about his profession. Here below our short conversation:
1) So, Carlo, tell us a little something about yourself.
I was born in Spilamberto, in the province of Modena, many years ago... My father was a woodworker, a carpenter, and after I finished elementary school he opened his own joinery in Genoa, so we moved there, where I went to a nautical school. I moved to Venice by chance, in the sense that I first came here to help some friends who worked as theatre actors, but I liked it so much that I decided to stay and started studying scenic design at the Fine Art Academy. In order to make a living, I started producing masks in papier-mâché for local clients (we could talk about small-scale wholesale). I also used to do entertainment in schools and mental hospitals (those were the years of the great innovations introduced by the Basaglia Law) and worked as a puppeteer, an activity I enjoyed a lot and that allowed me to travel throughout Italy, but I decided to quit when my daughter was born to stay closer to my family.
2) When did you start working leather?
I had already started working with leather out of curiosity when I was in Genoa. It gradually became my specialisation, mainly because these are the masks required by theatre actors, my main clients. To improve my technique and find inspiration for new characters, I started documenting myself, and got involved more every day. I even found out that leather masks link me to my native city, Modena, because in the epic poem "La Secchia Rapita" by Tassoni, based on the "War of the Bucket" between the cities of Bologna and Modena, the traditional masks of Modena are mentioned. This sort of mask was also commissioned by the Vatican for the Carnival of Rome, and then they became central for the renowned Accademia dell' Arte. The tradition was eventually abandoned, until in the 1950s a man called Amleto Sartori brought it back to life. I would advise to anyone passionate about the theme to visit the dedicated museum in Abano Terme (Padua) named after him and his son Donato (link: http://www.sartorimaskmuseum.it/il-museo/).
3) Do you model the molds yourself?
Yes, and I quite enjoy it too. I never draw a model, I start straight from the piece of wood. I find inspiration in everything that surrounds me, people I meet in the street or figures from book illustrations. I aim at making my characters as expressive as possible, and I like to add all sorts of media for their finishing touches, so I'm always collecting plumes, leaves, fabrics, colours, and so on.
4) I see you have an interesting collection of musicians. How did you started it?
Music is an important part of my life, and I have a great passion for blues and jazz music. Although, to be honest with you, my first masks of musicians were dedicated to classical masters. I had found some music books with notes and wanted to use them, so initially I made a single mold as base for the faces and used the cut pieces of the music books to characterise them, like for Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, and so on. Eventually I started creating individual molds trying to recreate the specific facial details of my subjects, so you can see some famous personalities like Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, John Lennon and more. Other collections I am fond of are the ones dedicated to Corto Maltese and to Forest Creatures (from my imagination), always in papier-mâché and hand-painted.
5) Do you use photographs to recreate the subjects' details?
No... I have their face drawn into my head, and that's quite enough.
6) Is it true that you lived inside the Casa dei Tre Oci?
Yes, for some years while at university. It was my girlfriend of the time who lived there actually, but then she left for Germany and I stayed another couple of years. The house was divided into different apartments (and by the way, the interior designer of mine was the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim), all lived by some sort of artist, and the view was absolutely magnificent. I have some great memories of the Redentore fireworks that I will treasure forever.
7) Last -and unpleasant- question: how did the Acqua Grande of last November affected you?
Tough question... because I am still recovering from the event. Unfortunately my shop is very low and the water arrived to the table where I work. Everything was submerged, I tried to save as much as possible but there was really nothing to do for most electrical plugs... so my cash register and the pos machine went, and with regard to my materials, well, the impact of the water was so strong that it broke pieces of furniture, which fell destroying part of my molds and ruining a great number of masks and puppets. I didn't ask for the money from the municipality because in order to get a refund you needed to present the receipts of the materials, so -for example- in the case of papier-mâché the cost of the material is ridiculous, just paper and glue... it is my time and skill in making masks from scratch that constitutes my work, but these things have not been considered and my category has been suffering a lot. Not short after the Acqua Granda arrived Covid, and that was (and still is) another gigantic challenge. Anyway, I come to my shop everyday and am gradually fixing and remaking my tools. The times are tough, but I am old enough to say that we must keep fighting for what we care about and that the brightest moment arrives after a pitch dark night.
A huge thank you to Carlo for sharing his time with me. Please do visit him when in Venice and in case you would like more information, don't hesitate to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will put you in direct contact with him.
Bye for now and talk soon!
LA PIETRA FILOSOFALE
Address: San Marco 1735, 30124 Venezia (VE)
Phone: (+39) 041 - 528 5885