Rosie Meleady meets the master mask maker Agostino Dessì whose work has been exhibited around the world, used in the movie industry and adorns the walls of beautiful homes around the world.
Wander away from the main tourist streets of the cities of Italy and you will stumble upon streets with hidden treasure troves: small artisan shops where the craftsperson busily works away in the back corner on the next piece to sell.
Via Faenza in Florence is one such street. Passing by a shop of mirrors you can’t help but be drawn to the effigies hanging outside the little shopfront further down the street – masks of Michelangelo’s David with clockwork embellishments, mythical creatures, gods, political figures and traditional Carnevale theatrical faces all beckon you to enter. Giant- to keychain-size masks crafted from paper, leather, resin or metals adorn every inch of the interior walls and display tables. A shop that would fit perfectly into a scene of a Harry Potter-style novel.
And in the back sits the sculptor himself, Agostino Dessì, busily polishing and adjusting the latest piece. His work has been exhibited around the world and used in the movie industry.
“I’ve been creating masks in different materials for over 50 years. I work with paper mâché, wool paper and leather paper. I also really like working with leather, bronze and resin.”
Growing up in Serdiana in Sardinia, using whatever tools he could find at home, Dessì taught himself how to carve the typical local wooden mask of the Mammuttones, a scary Sardinian folklore character that is a main focus of festivals on the island throughout the year.
He studied at several art academies in Italy and had his first mask exhibition in 1973 at the Gold Square Gallery, Turin. Six years later, after graduating, Agostino opened his own workshop in Florence which he named “Alice’s Masks Studio” after his daughter.
“During the early years, inspiration was born looking at characters of the Commedia dell’Arte –the Harlequin, Pulcinella and the famous Doctor of the Plague – in the paintings of Pietro Longhi in Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice.”
“Later traveling and living in Mexico for six months was important for my artistic training and as a cultural experience. Travelling and studying is always a source of inspiration.” Later this year Agostino is planning a trip to Japan to discuss the possibility of an exhibition there.
At the beginning of the eighties, taking his inspiration from the Carnevale of Venice, he created a range of groundbreaking masks: the Moons, the Suns, the Jollies, the Elves, the Satyres and Bacchus. These became very popular, and the designs have been imitated by many other artisans elsewhere over the decades. In 1985 he collaborated in the making of the film The Mask directed by Fiorella Infascelli.
“My favourite piece is definitely the mask of the leaf I created for the film The Mask with Helena Bonham Carter.”
In more recent years, while still producing works based on his already known designs, Agostino has turned his attention to portrait masks, which have their origins in the Venetian tradition of emulating public figures.
“Each mask is born from an idea and has its own project – the clay modelling part is used to transform the idea or the drawing into a real model. We often do live plaster negatives of people who have interesting faces to work on. For example, I made the first mould of my daughter’s face when she was 10, and every three to four years we make a new one to see the evolution of her face.
With the same face you can create different masks by adding hats, horns or other outlines.”
Agostino’s daughter, Alice, who is also a master mask maker, organises mask-making workshops at their historic shop in Florence once a month. Alice’s children are keen to learn the craft from their grandfather too and help out in the workshop when they visit, so this beautiful craft will thankfully continue with the next generation.
When in Florence visit Alice’s Masks Studio or do a mask-creation workshop at:
Alice’s mask Studio, Via Faenza 72 r. , 50126 Firenze.
For more information see: www.alicemasks.com