Viareggio Carnival poster 2007 © Fondazione di Carnevale Viareggio
Arts Council of England Funding Logo © ACE


If you are interested in learning the art of Italian Maschere please contact Claire who will be willing to run workshops to your requirements.

The Art of Italian Machere

Many people associate the art of Papier Maché with the simple technique used in schools throughout the UK. Italian Maschere is far more complex and produces wonderful three dimensional shapes that are produced from a complex base structure. In this section I will explain the process from start to finish giving you an insight into the construction of these fantastic floats.

Before the artists even start the Fondazione decide on a theme for the forthcoming year. The artists then submit drawings of their own vision that will fit into the theme during July of the year prior to the floats going on display (i.e., July 2006 for Lent 2007). The same artists work on the floats every year until they decide to retire. A number of different designs are submitted to the Fondazione who then decide on which design is used for the parades.

The difference between here and in the UK is that the carnival is part funded by the Italian National Lottery, approximately 1 weeks total takings of lottery money goes to support carnival across Italy. The Viareggio Carnival for the 2007 season was supported by €500,000 then additional funding comes from the sale of tickets to each of the parades, books, posters, and other forms of merchandising. This money is divided up between each category, with the 1st category floats getting a larger amount. With this money the artists have to pay for staff and materials. The paper used in the production of these structures is provided from national recycling of newspapers and is see as an important use of waste materials. The Fondazione then provides the work space for the artists to work in, this is at the Cittadella where the hangers are used to produce the full structure. Nine hangers are used for the 1st category floats and the other 3 hangers for the 2nd category and group machere

A hanger at the Cittadella containg the near finished Dance Macabre Float.

Although the artists own the copyright of their designs the end product is the property of the Fondazione, who each year place the previous years floats and single puppets around the town, with the winner of the overall 1st category getting pride of place on the main road into Viareggio. You will see many shops around the town with puppets or parts of floats in their windows which make an interesting talking point.

Original drawing of the winning 1st category float of 19

At the last parade of the season a decision is made as to which float is the overall winning design. This design is then placed in the museum with a scaled model of it.
The museum has a scale model of every 1st Category winner dating back to 1927, as well as, an area displaying how the structures are made, an original moving puppet and posters since the 1900's. The museum is well worth a visit if you want a snap shot of the history of the Viareggio Carnival.

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Design Process

You can see the whole process on the first photographic gallery page of this site.

Although the drawings are two dimensional, the floats and puppets are three dimensional. To enable the three dimensional shape the drawing is transformed to a large design in clay, the basic shape is made and then the detail is added. The depth is built up either from a flat surface or using a block structure worked in wood, rattan cane, chicken wire and soldered bright iron rods. When working on a body or head structure a three dimensional block is constructed initially and then clay is thrown onto the surface, built up and then shaped with features being highly exaggerated usually in a cartoon style, although in 2006 the Fratelli Cinquini were chosen to produce puppets for the winter olympics at Torino by the Fondazione which were of a simpler and more elegant style than usually seen.

When the base structure is complete the clay is sprayed with a soap and water mix, this stops the lime plaster from sticking to the clay and the plaster breaking. The lime plaster is used because as it sets it heats up and forms a really strong cast that is waterproof and can be kept for years. Because of the size of the casts they are used again to produce other puppets from year to year. The plaster is thrown onto the cast working from the top downwards in a thin single layer, a second layer is then placed over this using hessian squares dipped into the plaster and then a wooden or steel structure is attached using strips of hessian to hold it into place. Once the plaster has dried and cooled down the cast is lifted off the clay model, usually this is an easy process, but occasionally the weight of the cast can causes it to stick to the clay which causes a vacuum to occur which makes the removal very difficult and occasionally the cast cracks. After removal the cast is cleaned, any small pieces of clay are brushed out and sharp edges are smoothed down. The cast is then coated with a mixture of talc and water which prevents the papier mache from sticking to it.

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The paper used is torn pieces of newspaper which is recycled for this process. The papier mache is stuck together using a flour and water glue. This is very strong as the glue is cooked before it is used, it also makes the papier mache waterproof. The cast is built up using a number of layers of paper, the first layer consists of three sheets of newspaper glued together which are laid randomly in small torn pieces into the cast covering it totally with an over lap on the outer edges.

Pieces of papier mache being randomly layered in a cast

A second layer of papier mache is then added again with three sheets of newspaper this time in a different colour (a number of Italian publications are printed on pink paper) so that the various layers can be differentiated between. Then a final layer of two sheets of newspaper are laid onto the the first two layers. The edges that have been left to over lap are then hand rolled with either wire or thick string running through it which further strengthens the cast. The edge is then held down by glued strips of paper to ensure that the edge of the papier mache doesn't warp whilst it dries.

Photograph showing the rolled edge of a cast held in place with strips of papier mache

The papier mache is then painted with a glue and plaster mix which further strengthens the structure.
The cast is then left to dry, this can take anywhere from a few days to a week depending upon the humidity and temperature. The casts are placed so that they are not exposed to direct sunlight because this causes the papier mache to warp.

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One the papier mache has dried it is carefully removed from the cast which is either used again to produce another cast or it is put into storage for use later. The papier mache is checked for any damage and loose paper is either cut off or stuck down again. The next phase in the building of the structure now begins. As soon as all the parts are ready to be assembled the edges of the casts are sanded down so that they are perfectly flat so that they can be sewn together. If the pieces are small they are stitched and the edges are covered with another layer of papier mache and allowed to dry. On the large pieces the frame work is constructed. Originally the frame works were made from wood and the casts were nailed and screwed onto the frame work. But now the use of steel is wide spread as it can be shaped and welded to produce a far more robust structure which is easily recycled for other projects. Each individual puppet and float will have it's own super-structure designed to ensure the finished item moves correctly and is balanced correctly.

The internal framework of a puppet showing the support frame and head frame in situ.

When the structures have been built and the papier mache casts have been stitched together and seams covered and allowed to dry, the huge task of painting the floats and puppets begins. They are painted with 2 layers of white external emulsion which shows up any flaws. At this point you can also see how detailed the structures are in comparison to the original clay sculpture. The flaws are repaired using more papier mache, allowed to dry and then sanded down to produce a smooth finish. These areas are then painted white again.

A finished clay sculpture prior to coating in Plaster The same head as a finished papier mache cast showing detail after painting white

Then the task of painting the details onto each part of the puppet and float is undertaken, this can take a few hours or days depending on the detail required. The painting usually continues right up until approximately two hours prior to the first parade of the season. To prevent water damage the finished floats and puppets are usually given a spray coating of lacquer although this isn't essential. One thing that is important when the floats are trying to make a statement even the minutest detail is important as the picture below shows.

Close up of a painted shoe showing a made in China logo

Because of the size of the floats they are designed to be taken apart into easily stored parts which fit together exactly and are assembled in the morning prior to the floats going to the parade route. At the Cittadella you can see an number of cranes that help lift some of the large pieces into place. After each parade has taken place the floats and puppets are returned to the cittadella, taken apart and repairs are carried out to any damage that occurs.

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textural banner written in Italian saying Carnival of Viareggio , Carnival of Italy and Carnival of Europe Using enliven font

Photograph of a plaster mould at the Cittadella