Shopping for Masks and Crafts in Venice’s San Polo

Mask Shop in San Polo, Venice (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Mask Shop in San Polo, Venice (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Bellissima,” he exclaims as I look into the mirror he holds for me.

“Better than without the mask?” I retort and we both laugh. The mask maker is trying to help me solve my problem with any mask. I wear glasses, so unless it’s thin and close-fitting enough to wear the glasses over, I risk stumbling over something in my myopia.

“That could be dangerous in Venice,” he teases, but he’s right – a false step could land me in a canal. If anyone has the perfect carnival mask for me, it will be here in San Polo, the sestiere that begins at the other side of Rialto Bridge.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Nothing could be more Venetian that masks for Carnevale.
  • San Polo is filled with tiny studios where artists create everything from marbled paper to oarlocks for gondolas.
  • Good for travelers who seek authentic local crafts as souvenirs and gifts.

San Polo is a quarter of artists and artisans, and although Dorsoduro has its share of mask makers, I like the mix of crafts I always find in San Polo’s narrow streets and tiny campos. I also like its neighborhood feeling, and the fact that people live here, in layers of apartments above the little ateliers and studios, and shop in the daily food market that sprawls along the Grand Canal.

I begin there, in the noisy morning mélange of farmers, fishmongers, housewives and chefs from neighboring restaurants. I know that the calamari or scallops I see here this morning may be on my plate at dinner. The first artist I watch at work this morning is a tiny woman who could be 100, as her gnarled hands turn a basket full of big round artichokes into a bucket of perfectly carved artichoke hearts floating in cold water. With luck, some of them will be on my plate, too.

Venetian mask makers often create dolls and marionettes as well (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Venetian mask makers often create dolls and marionettes as well (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Watching Mask Makers at Work

The first mask studio I visit is tiny La Bottega dei Mascareri, near Rialto Bridge, specializing in Medieval and 18th-century masks and the commedia dell’arte, all made using traditional techniques. There’s no place to turn in the shop without bumping into Pinocchio or long-nosed medico della peste. Gold-leaf-covered suns and pale moon faces smile down on the brothers who created them, as they make more in a workshop that hardly seems big enough to hold the artists and their finished works, let alone customers.

Quill pens and inks are sold alongside fine stationery and hand-bound books (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Quill pens and inks are sold alongside fine stationery and hand-bound books (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Ruga Vechia San Giovanni leads me into the heart of San Polo, and on it I find the studio where Alberto Sarria crafts elegant slate black faces with white stucco flourishes and swirls, along with Venetian lions and Casanova, and traditional harlequins and half masks. Marionettes in full carnival costume swing from the ceiling.

I continue on a fairly direct route (no route is really straight in Venice) and on Campiello dei Meloni I spot marbled paper in the window of Il Pavone di Paolo Pelosin. How could I not go inside, or leave without a beautiful sketchbook bound in peacock colors? And how could I get past the window of a bakery that’s been here since 1742, especially when it’s filled with almond and pignoli cookies, fruit tarts and stacks of sugar-coated bombolone. As I sip my cappuccino and munch an apple tart at Pasticceria Rizzardini, I make note to return this way for a bag of cookies to go.

Forcole for Gondolas

Through the large Campo San Polo, alongside the church, and over the bridge across Rio San Polo, I take a slight left jog into narrow Calle dei Nomboli, to one of my favorite craftsmen in all Venice. Stepping into the workshop of Franco Furlanetto, I regret that I don’t have a gondola whose oarlock needs replacing. I seriously consider bringing home one of these gracefully curved wooden oar supports as a piece of sculpture, one unique to Venice. Along with these beautifully undulating forcole, the wood carver makes other parts for gondolas, too, in a studio that could be an art gallery.

San Polo is filled with intimate canal scenes and quiet streets (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

San Polo is filled with intimate canal scenes and quiet streets (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

This street is lined with crafts studios and shops — paper artists, book binders, wood carvers, brass smiths and another mask shop. TragiComica has everything you need for Carnevale – masks, hats, historically authentic costumes, even information on events. Behind the roomy shop I watch artists modeling masks in papier mache.

Continuing on to Campo San Tomà, I follow Calle Prima Larga toward Campo dei Friari and discover Il Baule Blu, filled with hand-crafted teddy bears. Although some are small-child-proof, most are made for collectors, some dressed in vintage lace-trimmed baby clothes. At Campo Friari, I gravitate to Legatoria Polliero, which specializes in marbled paper and leather-bound journals, and has a good selection of reasonably priced albums and desk accessories that make good gifts. A portfolio covered in watery blue and green marbled paper catches my eye and I begin to wonder if a luggage shop shouldn’t be my next stop.

San Polo’s Art-filled Churches

San Polo is not without its touristic sights: the church of San Polo has stations of the cross with paintings by Giandomenico Tiepolo, and a Last Supper by Tintoretto. The sacristy of San Cassiano has a moving Tintoretto Crucifixion, and San Pantalon a painted trompe l’oeil ceiling. The Friary church is one of the city’s treasure houses, with beautiful carved wood choir stalls and works by Titian, Donatello, Bellini and Pietro Lombardo. The sestiere’s crowning attraction, and the goal of most visitors who venture here, is Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where Tintoretto created his masterpiece, a cycle of paintings that fill the walls and ceiling.

After admiring the art inside Friary church, I head back to Campo San Polo, and Osteria Vivaldi, where a helpful waiter stows my packages while I order beef carpaccio on a bed of wild arugula with slivered grana, followed by a plate of crisp fried shrimp and calamari, surely from this morning’s market.

During Carnivale, people stroll Campo San Polo day and night wearing simple harlequin eye-masks or fanciful faces of princes and rascals. I decide that if I return for Carnivale I will join them, elegantly aloof behind Alberto Sarria’s slate and white mask. And I’ll wear contact lenses.

Practicalities

  • San Polo begins across Rialto Bridge from the San Marco sestiere. Signs point to Rialto from Piazza San Marco and throughout the city; if you’re lost (and you’re bound to be at least once), these will always led you back to Rialto. Vaporetto stops Rialto, San Silvestro, and San Tomà all access San Polo, and there is a traghetto (gondola ferry service) across the Grand Canal at San Tomà.
  • Shops are normally open Monday through Saturday, although some may close Saturday afternoon or Monday morning. Many also close for two hours in the middle of the day.

Comments

  1. Fran Folsom says

    It’s been 25 years since I”ve been in Venice and I still remember San Polo as my favorite neighborhood.

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