This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.
Many Italophiles associate masks and their manufacture with Venice and its famed Carnevale celebrations, but Florence, with its Commedia dell’Arte theaters dating back to the 16th century, also has a long, rich history of mask making.
Florence has, of course, been a treasure chest of creativity for centuries. There must be something in the air or light that inspires and draws artists and artisans to make Florence their home. If you take yourself down some of the smaller streets and alleyways in Florence, you will find treasures hidden from the tourist masses. Around the Central Market, there are still some of the old bottegas: artists’ workshops crammed with tools, materials and finished works.
Via Faenza was recently closed off to traffic and after a nice walk down towards via Nazionale you will find a tiny mask shop, the domain of Professore Agostino Dessì, master mask artisan. Stroll into Alice’s Atelier, his bottega named after his daughter and partner in the business, and you will find yourself transported into a rich, crowded and utterly magical space where faces of every size, sporting expressions from terrifying to tender, hang from the walls, ceiling, and every available niche.
Dessì is originally from Cagliari on the southern tip of Sardinia, which also has a mask-making tradition. He taught himself to make the traditional carved wooden masks used for carnival called Mammutones as well as Sartiglia masks, which are traditionally mysterious, all-white human faces.
The heavy Mammutones masks represent ugly, scary figures. Dessì wanted to learn more, so he moved to the mainland to study with the best artists, first in Turin,where he studied with Professore Sandro Cherchi, and then in Florence, where he found Professore Gallo and Professore Chissotti, and decided to put down roots in order to develop his art.
Dessì opened his own workshop in 1979, starting with the masks of the Commedia dell’Arte and the Venetian paintings of the 18th century, and soon realized that he wanted to learn how to make the best materials in order to make the best art.
His innovations in papers, glues, and support structures led to popular designs like the Moons, the Suns, the Elves and others that are now imitated by countless fellow artisans. In 1985, he collaborated on Fiorella Infasceli’s award-winning film The Mask. He has since worked with acting companies in Italy and Germany to create masks for productions, too.
The Florentine theatrical mask tradition includes many stock characters that represent particular places. Pulcinello, for example, stands in for Naples; Stenterello, Florence and Gianduia for Piedmont.
Dessì’s masks have evolved from the classic Commedia dell’Arte to new, more modern, whimsical pieces; he also makes masks inspired by masterworks, like one of Michelangelo’s David. Nature has inspired many of the newer masks. Many of these masks are large and meant to be art pieces and hung on the walls, while others are smaller and can be worn. There are classic full-face masks, or smaller ones which cover only your eyes, with lace. Each time I go in, he has created something new. Fun animal masks, Pinocchio, a crazy Steampunk line made in leather and with metal decorations.
In 1997, with his daughter Alice, Dessì began to give classes in mask making. During the last week of the month, father and daughter offer a five-day program, taught in English. Each day a different part of the process is completed. First, you must make a chalk model of your desired mask. On the second day, you create a plaster cast to mold around the chalk model.
Day three, the plaster is taken off the model and the mold is ready to be used. The mask is created in the mold, using strips of a special paper and glue. Layer upon layer, the mask is built up. It is then left to dry. Once dry and removed from the plaster mold, it is then controlled to be sure it is smooth and then ready to be painted and decorated. Go to YouTube and search for a video of the mask making process by searching Professor Dessi’s name.
These week-long seminars are a rare opportunity to learn the skills of artists in their bottega. Dessì is constantly creating new techniques, many of which you can study in his book The Masks of Professor Agostino Dessì, which contains 140 photographs both of finished works and step-by-step instructions for amateur mask enthusiasts.
Professore Dessì has recently started working in bronze and you can see those pieces at his gallery on Via del Amorino, 9 just a few blocks from the mask shop.
— Judy Witts Francini
Judy Witts Francini runs culinary programs in Tuscany and Sicily. She’s the author of the book Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen and the app Chianti: Food and Wine. For more information, visit www.divinacucina.com.
Alice’s Masks Studio
Via Faenza, 72r
Masks: Start at 15€ and goes up to about 300€
Lessons: 500€ for 5-day program
If you decide to take an Alice’s Masks workshop, you might consider staying at the Dessì’s own hotel, on the Via del Amorino next to Agostino Dessì’s gallery. It’s in a superb central Florentine location, close to Santa Maria Novella and the Medici Chapels. The décor is elegant but comfortable, with lots of cushy leather sofas and fine amenities.