When you think of Epcot, you may recall fragrant florals from the Flower & Garden Festival. Or, perhaps, delectable dishes from the Food & Wine Festival. (I, too, love to ‘eat my way around the world.’) Most of all, I enjoy Epcot as a gathering place to meet friendly cast members from various countries. My last visit to Epcot’s Italy Pavilion did not disappoint.
Venice, Italy vs. Italy at Epcot
Through the years, I have come to love the “real” Italy, especially Venice. Epcot’s Italy Pavilion transports me back to Venice every time. Strolling through, I see architectural reminders of Saint Mark’s Square: the delicately intricate façade of the Doge’s Palace, and the Campanile (bell tower).
The entrance is guarded by two columns, topped with Venezia’s patron saints: Saint Mark’s Lion and Saint Theodore standing above a crocodile. (Though Epcot’s version is actually reversed.)
Admittedly, Disney puts a spin on their presentation of each country. (Germany’s Bavarian region is famous for their large, scrumptious pretzels. But they certainly are not Mickey-shaped, nor come with cheese dipping sauce.)
To their credit, though, Disney is committed to recruiting native cast members to represent their countries’ pavilions at Epcot, creating a more authentic experience.
Venetian Arts at Epcot: Glass and Masks
Classic Venetian arts include Murano glass, and papier-mâché Venetian masks. On the island of Murano, I watched Master glass-blowers coax molten balls of sand into elaborate spirals, then assemble them to make a chandelier.
In Venice, I stood entranced by a Master mask artisan, teaching school-age children the craft of making papier-mâché masks – one layer at a time. This picture was taken through his storefront window.
It is no surprise that my favorite shop in Epcot’s Italy – Il Bel Cristallo – is filled with both Murano glass jewelry and Venetian masks. And so, I entered, just to soak in the ambiance.
This time, I met a talented mask artisan named Matteo.
Matteo shares his Venice
We first spoke of Venice, and how it is to live in this remarkable city surrounded by water. There are no cars. Even the simplest tasks (such as getting store deliveries or taking out the recycling) are done by boat and involve navigating heavy loads over many narrow bridges by hand-trolley.
We spoke of the acqua alta, and how the rising tides cause regular flooding in Saint Mark’s Square. Matteo explained that the barriers of ground-level storefronts are not to keep water out (as that is impossible), but to block rubbish from floating in with the water.
I learned of the (lack of) construction progress for the tide barrier floodgates to abate the acqua alta, and the state of the Venetian lagoon. Each country has its share of political turmoil. We are not alone.
Venice was one of the world’s greatest naval and trading powers during the Renaissance. It was a Republic, free from the rule of the Pope. Commerce and the arts ruled. Wealthy merchants commissioned art, not the Church.
Matteo shared that, at its peak of power, Venice manufactured one ship per day at the Arsenale via an assembly-line approach. (This was many years before Henry Ford’s automobile factory).
Masks and Carnevale
I have been to “La Biennale,” the biannual art festival in Venice. But I have never witnessed the spectacle of “Carnevale.”
Matteo described “Carnevale” in Venice and the significance of certain masks. The Skull, the Doctor, and the Cat masks are central to Venetian history, dating back to the Plague.
The Skull represents death.
The Doctor mask has a long beak-like nose to avoid infection from plague patients. Emma Watson’s “Belle” found a Doctor’s mask in her childhood Parisian home, in Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast. The Venetian mask Master with his students (pictured earlier) also has a Doctor mask on his table.
And the Cat? Cats killed rats that carried the Plague.
Matteo then showed me some of the masks he created. In addition to the beautiful classic Venetian-style masks, he designed some steampunk style masks. And Disneybounding masks.
He graciously shared some of his mask-making tips, highlighting his resourcefulness. Matteo has combined his talent as a mask-maker, and his passion for different fandoms, to create remarkable works of art.
He is not alone. Il Bel Cristallo has about 20 talented Venetian mask artisans, each with a unique style and distinctive techniques.
Each mask takes several hours – up to a week – to complete, as many layers are applied. Some masks have gold-leaf. Others have crystals and feathers. Each one is hand-crafted with amore. Papier-mâché masks are priced from $50.
Connecting with the world through Disney Parks
So, the next time you’re at Epcot, take a moment to connect with one of the locals from your favorite country in World Showcase. Ask them about insider traveler tips if you’re planning a vacation to their homeland. You may learn some interesting perspectives about their culture.
Or, you may find a common passion. (Matteo and I talked about favorite Star Wars films – ranked in order, of course. Star Wars is such a unifying force across so many cultures.)
You may find that you have much more in common than you think. It’s another great way to connect with the world through Disney Parks.
And if you happen to be in Italy, please say ‘hi’ to Matteo for me.
Gloria Hasler is a freelance travel writer and photographer. She is a professional travel consultant, owner of Chrysalis Travel, and – together with her husband – co-founder of the Six Castles Club.