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Epcot’s Italy pavilion has a ‘scary’ Venetian secret

by Susan and Simon Veness

Epcot’s Italy pavilion is known, in part, for the exquisite Venetian masks within the La Gemma Elegante shop. But tucked away, out of guests’ view, are a series of masks that celebrate the macabre. Here’s how to find them.

Epcot's Italy pavilion La Gemma Elegante

Anyone who has browsed the shops in Epcot’s Italy pavilion has surely seen the stunning Venetian masks, detailed to perfection, some adorned with feathers and Swarovski crystals. Whether full masks or smaller “eye masks,” each is a work of art with a grand history behind it.

Elaborate papier-mâché Venetian masks date back to the 1200s A.D., and were worn to protect revelers’ identities during Carnivale, Italy’s “celebration of hedonism,” similar to Mardi Gras. They were the 13th century way of saying “What happens in Venice stays in Venice,” while also leveling the playing field between societal classes and helping to keep individuals’ personal and business dealings secret in what was essentially a small-town setting, where everyone knew everyone else.

Like many raucous celebrations, Carnivale was outlawed in the dim and distant past due to its ever-increasing decadence, then reintroduced in 1979. But that’s neither here nor there when it comes to Epcot’s Italy pavilion and its horror-inspired “secret” masks.

Epcot's Italy pavilion Medusa mask

Giorgio Iurcotta runs the Orlando branch of his family’s company, Balocoloc Venetian Masks, whose founding matriarch helped bring Carnivale back to Venice. In an exclusive interview for Attractions Magazine, he told us about the “secret” masks in La Gemma Elegante.

Italy pavilion The Purge mask

The Balocoloc company has been selling opulent papier-mâché masks in Epcot since 2001, and over time, Giorgio revealed, it became clear Orlando had an appetite for the macabre as well.

The line was started by Matteo, one of the company’s artists. He was inspired by movies and comics such as “The Purge,” “V for Vendetta,” and “The Dark Horse,” and, pre-pandemic, the intent was to make a website called The Dark Side of Balocoloc.

Epcot's Italy pavilion Alieno mask

But what about the history of scary masks in Italy? There is none, Giorgio says, other than the well-known “plague doctor” mask, with its thin, elongated nose. “That one used to be a doctor during the black plague, and people still consider it a scary mask. That could be a connection somehow, but we don’t have a tradition of scary [masks at] Carnivale. Carnivale is not scary at all. It’s the opposite. It’s a very elegant and calm party compared to Mardi Gras.”

Ready to check out the “dark side” line? You’ll have to ask to see them.

Italy pavilion V for Vendetta mask

“At Epcot we only display the Venetian masks, the nice ones,” said Giorgio. “We don’t keep the scary ones out with the other ones, so it became something that people didn’t know. You find out from customers if they are into that. If they are wearing [certain] T-shirts or something, you can start a conversation with them and say, ‘Hey, we have a selection of scary masks. Do you want to see them?’ “Or [they find them by] word of mouth, and they come and say, ‘Hey, can I see some of your scary masks you keep in the back?’ It’s something you have to find out for yourself, or we connect with you based on what we see. During Carnivale, you can wear a scary mask if you want to. Once you’re masked, you’re part of the event. But we wanted to keep Epcot more like the happy place. We also like the mysterious side of the scary ones that you have to come and ask for. It’s not for everybody.”

For more information on Balocoloc Venetian Masks, visit Balocoloc.com.

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